Where should I go for help? This is a common question that many of us have when illness or injury strike, especially when primary care doctors are booked or when we need help after hours. Understanding the difference between an “emergency” and an “urgent” situation may seem confusing, but there are a few key differences that can help you decide which type of care best fits your needs.

If your symptoms come on gradually or you already know the diagnosis (for example, you recognize when your child has come down with an ear infection) try calling your primary care doctor to see if you can get a same-day appointment. If your doctor is unavailable or you need care after hours, urgent care clinics are a great option. These clinics are equipped to handle minor conditions such as cold and flu symptoms, sprains, minor cuts and scrapes, or even broken bones (as long as the bone did not pierce the skin). Wait times at urgent care centers are often shorter than they are in emergency rooms, and patients are seen on a first come, first serve basis.

Emergency room visits are best saved for life threatening illness or injury, as they are equipped to handle more severe conditions. Wait time will vary based on the severity of your illness or injury. Someone with a more severe illness or injury (such as uncontrollable bleeding or difficulty breathing) will be treated quicker than someone with a more minor condition (such as a sore throat or a sprained ankle). This is why emergency room visits are best saved for true emergencies or life threatening conditions.

Whether you’re headed to the emergency room or an urgent care facility, it’s important to be prepared. Make sure you know what medications you’re taking, and any allergies. Bring your insurance card along with you. All of this will help doctors determine a diagnosis and the best course of treatment.

When to visit…

The Emergency Room

  • Uncontrollable bleeding
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Burns
  • Head injury
  • Chest pain
  • High fever with a rash

Urgent Care

  • Flu and cold
  • Coughs and sore throat
  • High fever without rash
  • Vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain
  • Cuts and severe scrapes
  • Broken bones
  • Minor injuries and burns

Sources: Cigna, Medicare. The Health Tip of the Week is for educational purposes only.  For additional information, consult your physician. Please feel free to copy and distribute this health resource.