Choosing where to turn for care in a scary and sudden medical situation can be confusing. You might not know if you should head to urgent care or go straight to the emergency room (or, in some cases, call 911).
Are your fever and cough due to the flu, or do you have pneumonia, which could require hospitalization? Is that chest pain from a muscle you pulled at a high-intensity interval training class, or could it be something more serious? Here, experts explain the purpose of urgent care, plus when to go there vs. the emergency room.
Urgent care is for minor—not major—medical issues.
The difference between urgent and emergency care boils down to what constitutes a medical emergency. “Urgent care is a form of medical care that focuses on conditions that are not potentially life- or limb-threatening emergencies, but still require prompt care within 24 hours or less,” Timothy Tan, M.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and an attending physician at Mount Sinai Urgent Care, tells SELF.
At urgent care centers, you’ll typically find both doctors and physician assistants who usually have training in emergency or family medicine, Dr. Tan explains. “They have a broad range of medical knowledge and skills that allow them to diagnose and treat a wide variety of illnesses in patients of all ages,” Dr. Tan says. “[They can] also identify when a specialist is needed or when there is a potential emergency medical condition requiring an emergency room visit.”
Urgent care centers usually have X-ray machines, basic lab testing (think: throat or nasal swabs for strep throat or flu), and equipment for minor procedures such as splinting a broken bone, stitching a wound, or draining an abscess, Dr. Tan explains. If what you’re dealing with requires a more intense level of care, going to an emergency room (or calling 911) makes more sense.
“Emergency departments will have more in-depth diagnostic testing, a wide range of medications, and access to specialists such as cardiologists for heart attacks, or orthopedic surgeons for complex fractures,” Dr. Tan says.
A doctor will usually see you more quickly at urgent care.
Since emergency rooms prioritize life-threatening health problems, urgent care can get you in and out more quickly if you have a minor medical concern. “[At] the ER, patients often wait hours to be seen for their potentially non-life-threatening concern,” Alexis Halpern, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, tells SELF.
There are even some technology-based urgent care services where you can see a provider ASAP, such as NYU Langone’s Virtual Urgent Care center. For $126 (plus any additional fees based on treatments, though this base price can change depending on insurance coverage), people in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania can book appointments to see an NYU Langone doctor virtually for nonemergency concerns.
We’re going to go ahead and emphasize that nonemergency bit. If you need care for a concern that feels like a serious threat to your health, the emergency room is a better option than virtual or even IRL urgent care. Also, emergency rooms are open 24/7, whereas many urgent care centers are closed late at night, Dr. Tan says. They do typically stay open later than doctors’ offices, though.
Urgent care centers generally cost less than emergency rooms.
Of course, what you’ll pay will depend on your insurance, but urgent care is often much cheaper.
“Because most urgent care clinics don’t have as much equipment or specialist availability as an emergency department, the cost to provide care is less, and many insurance companies will require a lower copayment for evaluation,” Paul L. Nadler, M.D., medical director of adult urgent care and a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, tells SELF.
Here are five signs you should consider going to urgent care.
Remember, though, that you should always follow your gut. If something about your health feels so off that you’re tempted to seek emergency care, don’t let anything on the following list stop you.
With that in mind, here are five general signs that urgent care may be able to help you.
1. Your medical issue is not threatening your life or a body part.
Let’s say you were slicing an avocado and cut your hand badly enough that an adhesive bandage won’t quite stanch the flow, but the wound isn’t spurting blood, you don’t see bone or anything else that’s super worrisome. Urgent care is likely your best option here. Lacerations should be cleaned and potentially stitched within hours to minimize the risk of infection and scarring, says Dr. Tan.
Other issues that urgent care facilities typically handle include pink eye, rashes, hives, ear pain, a twisted ankle, other musculoskeletal pains, and gynecologic issues such as urinary tract infections.
2. You have cold- or flu-like symptoms that aren’t responding to treatment.
You can usually treat a cold or flu at home. But urgent care can be helpful when you’re not sure if you have a minor respiratory infection or something more intense, like pneumonia. “If you’re experiencing a fever, body and muscle aches, chills and sweating, feel really tired, and have a dry cough that has persisted one to two days, it’s best to get checked out,” Dr. Halpern says. “The same goes for chest congestion, headache, stuffy nose, and rashes.”
3. You have chest pain, are under 55, and think it could be due to something like a strenuous workout.
“Chest pain is a tough one,” Dr. Nadler says. After all, even otherwise healthy people can have unexpected heart attacks. But if you’re under 55 (the age at which risk goes up for women), have no history of heart disease, and think you can pinpoint a minor cause behind your chest pain, you may want to consider urgent care over the emergency room.
For instance, if you recently lifted too much at the gym and think you pulled a muscle, or if you’re thinking your chest pain could be heartburn, urgent care should be able to help you out. Here are some more tips for demystifying your chest pain.
4. You have what seems like a minor bone fracture.
Many urgent care clinics can diagnose and splint fractures, says Dr. Nadler, but not every break should be treated at urgent care. “Fractures commonly treated in urgent care include elbow, wrist, hand, finger, ankle, foot, toe, and ribs,” says Dr. Nadler. It’s best to have anything more serious or complex, like long bone fractures in the arm or leg, hip, and back treated in an emergency department, he says.
5. You’d normally see a primary care doctor but don’t want to wait.
If you can’t get to your primary care doctor in time for something like diagnosing a yeast infection, urgent care can be a good option, Dr. Tan says.
However, don’t rely on urgent care as a replacement for preventive care. You shouldn’t put off routine screenings and check-ups with the thought that you can just go to urgent care if something comes up. It should be a complement to your normal preventive care when necessary, not a substitute.
Here are five signs you should head for the emergency room instead.
Again, these are general. If you think you need emergency care for something that isn’t on this list, seek it.
1. You’re having a hard time breathing.
For instance, an allergic reaction involving swelling in your tongue and mouth can impact your breathing, which deserves emergency attention. Severe shortness of breath can also be a sign of a cardiovascular issue such as a heart attack. No matter the cause, always seek emergency care if your ability to breathe is compromised in an alarming way.
2. You have chest pain (especially on the left side) and are at an increased risk for heart disease.
Chest discomfort on the left side, which could signal a heart attack, generally deserves prompt medical attention. This could present as straight-up pain, but it might also feel like pressure, squeezing, or as though that area is strangely full, according to the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute. This discomfort can be mild or intense, persistent or intermittent.
With that said, women are more likely to experience lesser known symptoms of a heart attack, like shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and pain that radiates into the back, shoulders, and jaw. If you’re experiencing any of these, go to the emergency room or call 911.
This is especially important if you’re more prone to heart attacks due to being over 55 or having other heart attack risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and a family history of this health issue.
3. You’re experiencing sudden paralysis, trouble speaking, confusion, and other strange symptoms.
These are all signs of a stroke, in which case you’ll need emergency care and should call 911. Emergency rooms are guaranteed to have access to CT and MRI machines that can diagnose issues such as strokes, says Dr. Tan, but that’s not always true for urgent care.
You can think of the stroke symptoms to watch for with the acronym FAST, the Mayo Clinic says:
-Face: Does one side of your face droop when you try to smile?
-Arms: Can you raise both arms and keep them up, or does one refuse to lift or start to lower?
-Speech: Is yours slurred?
-Time: If you answer yes to any of these questions, you need to call 911 because time is of the essence.
4. You have a fever and severe abdominal pain along with issues like nausea, fatigue, stomach swelling, and lethargy.
A mix of these kinds of symptoms could signal a lot of gastrointestinal conditions that need emergency care, like appendicitis, a serious gallbladder attack, and pancreatitis (an inflamed pancreas), Dr. Nadler says. These issues require immediate attention because they can lead to complications if left untreated. Since it’s really hard to ID the cause of these symptoms on your own, it’s important to get yourself to the hospital ASAP, the experts say.
5. You’re dealing with any illness or injury that is limb- or life-threatening.
If you have a deep wound that won’t stop bleeding, think you’ve broken a major bone, or are generally experiencing severe symptoms of illness at a level you never have before, you should consider choosing an emergency room over an urgent care center.
Don’t put off going to urgent care or the emergency room because you’re worried about the costs. Health care can be exorbitantly expensive in this country, so that concern is absolutely valid. But there are ways to negotiate high medical bills and make it easier to pay them off. If you’re worried about your health—and especially if you think your life depends on it—seek the care.