Skip to main content.

Emergency vs. Urgent Care: Where should I go?

Posted December 15, 2020 by Charles A. Zonfa, MD, FACOG | Chief Medical Officer

It’s Saturday afternoon and you’re just getting around to putting up the holiday lights. In a matter of seconds, your foot slips off the ladder, you try to grab ahold of the roof but miss and fall fast to the ground with a thud.

At first glance, you seem OK, but when you try to get up your arm is throbbing. There is a chance it could be broken, and you want to get it evaluated.

When situations like this arise, we’re often faced with the uncertainty of where to go to get medical care quickly, especially if our regular doctor’s office is closed. Planning ahead and understanding the difference between emergency vs. urgent care will help eliminate confusion when stressful situations like this one occur.

What’s more, when you listen to your body and assess the severity of your symptoms before deciding where to go, it will save you time and money — and may just save your life in emergency situations.

Emergency Rooms (ERs) are set up with a triage system to make sure the sickest patients get care immediately. So, you can avoid long wait times in an ER when that’s not the level of care you require. In addition, ER visits tend to cost much more than an Urgent Care visit, even for patients with insurance.

SummaCare breaks down emergency vs. urgent care so if the unfortunate happens, you can get the level of care you require quickly and efficiently. Just remember, when in doubt, head to the nearest hospital to be on the safe side.

Urgent Care

Urgent care is not emergency care. Urgent care helps fill a vital gap when you become sick or injured, but your regular doctor is not available, and you can’t wait for an appointment. The situation described above warrants urgent care.

Urgent Care centers can manage the same non life-threatening problems as your primary care provider. They also can provide X-rays, stitches and splints, and many have labs on-site. Most Urgent Care centers are open late and on weekends and holidays.

You should head to an Urgent Care if you’re experiencing:

  • Allergies and sinus infections
  • Asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia
  • Cough, cold, sore throat, flu
  • Coughing up blood (less than a teaspoon)
  • Cuts, scrapes, splinters, minor burns and puncture wounds
  • Ear pain
  • Eye irritation
  • Fever and muscle aches
  • Muscle and bone injuries without deformities
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Rash, cellulitis, poison ivy
  • Vaginal discharge with abdominal pain

It’s important to note if you go to Urgent Care and the providers believe you need a higher level of care; they will get you to an ER.

Emergency Room

You should head to the ER if your situation is a true medical emergency. The ER is reserved for life-threatening illnesses and injuries at any time, day or night, and can handle trauma, surgical procedures and other emergency situations. Most ERs are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Go to the ER or call 9-1-1 immediately if you are experiencing:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or left arm pain
  • A severe allergic reaction (swelling lips, difficulty swallowing)
  • Slurred speech, confusion, loss of balance or vision, sudden numbness or other stroke symptoms
  • Loss of consciousness
  • A head injury and are vomiting
  • A serious burn or cut, especially those that won’t stop bleeding
  • Multiple injuries or possible broken bones in areas like the ribs, face or pelvis
  • An overdose
  • Suicidal thoughts or self-harm

Plan ahead and know your options for care. It might just save your life.