Sometimes illness strikes out of the blue. You wake up in the middle of the night with stomach pain. You get a powerful headache on a Sunday morning. Injuries are also never predictable – you trip and fall on a night out, or you cut your finger making breakfast.
When these unexpected illnesses and injuries occur, you are probably uncertain where to go for help, particularly when your doctor’s office is closed, it’s in the middle of the night, or on a weekend.
Your first thought is probably the emergency room. But are your symptoms severe enough? Should you go somewhere else? The other main option you have on these occasions is the urgent care facility. Deciding where to go is not always simple, but knowing the difference between the emergency room and urgent care could save your life – and save you money and time.
Emergency Room and Urgent Care: What Are the Differences?
It is tricky to decide which place you should visit when you are experiencing an unexpected illness or injury – both emergency room and urgent care imply that you have a medical need that should be dealt with quickly. What exactly is the difference between emergency and urgent? The fact is, there are strong differences between these two facilities, particularly in the level of care provided at each place.
The emergency room (ER) or emergency department of a hospital provides medical care 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The emergency room is equipped to deal with anything up to the most critical life-or-death cases, including traumatic injuries, heart attack, and stroke. But because it is staffed and equipped to deal primarily with these kinds of cases, more minor injuries and health concerns are better treated elsewhere.
The urgent care clinic is for sudden illnesses and injuries, and treatment when your regular doctor’s office is closed. If you would normally see your doctor for the condition you are experiencing, but you don’t want to wait for an appointment, then the urgent care clinic is best for your needs.
Read on for more information about when the go to the emergency room and when to visit urgent care.
When to Visit the Emergency Room
In many cases the decision to visit the emergency room will be made for you – for example, in the case you are involved in a serious car accident, or you are unconscious after a fall at home. The emergency room provides rapid and advanced care for serious illnesses and injuries – if you experience a serious accident your first port of call should be the emergency room as it provides the level of care you need, which is only available in a hospital.
Symptoms that are best seen by doctors in an emergency room include:
- Persistent chest pain, accompanied by pain or discomfort in the arm or jaw
- Breathing difficulties
- Severe abdominal pain
- Sudden loss of balance, fainting, clumsiness or difficulty speaking or understanding
- Sudden paralysis or weakness
- Sudden blindness or severe vision changes
- Suicidal thoughts or severely altered mood
- Sudden and severe headache
- Sudden and severe heart palpitations
- Suspected broken bone
- Deep cuts or wounds that will not stop bleeding
- Head injuries
- Serious burns
- Pain or swelling in the testicles
- Sore throat and severe cold or flu symptoms
- Ear pain
- Diarrhea and vomiting
- Painful urination
- Minor cuts or sprains
For newborn babies, if a fever spikes at 100.4 the infant should be taken to an emergency room.
The general rule of thumb is to trust your instincts. If you feel it is sufficiently serious, go to the ER.
Should You Call 911?
Even if you decide that your symptoms or those of a loved one are sufficiently serious, you may be unsure whether it is best to drive to the ER or call 911. In general, it is better to be safe than sorry. You cannot drive yourself to the ER if you are experiencing severe pain or you are bleeding. And if you suspect a heart attack, calling 911 could save you vital minutes and save your life.
When to Go to Urgent Care
Many people go to the emergency room because the doctor’s office is closed, not because their symptoms are severe enough for the facility. In order to avoid the expense of an ER visit and the risk of wasting doctors’ time, many cases are best seen and treated in an urgent care facility.
At an urgent care clinic you can turn up without an appointment with a variety of medical conditions that need to be treated rapidly, but are not considered medical emergencies. The types of symptoms best treated at urgent care include:
Urgent care clinics are a great resource when you need treatment but cannot wait for an appointment. If you have a recurring issue or you want more extensive help, you should schedule a visit with your regular doctor.
For life threatening and emergency situations, the emergency room should be your first stop.