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When to Go to Urgent Care vs. the Emergency Room

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An urgent care is not a replacement for an emergency room visit if your condition is serious or life-threatening. It can be a replacement for your doctor’s office if you’re experiencing a minor but urgent condition and can’t see your regular physician.  

Let’s take a detailed look at when to go to urgent care, including the benefits of easy access to walk-in clinics that serve a variety of needs. We’ll also look at when your symptoms or injuries warrant a visit to the emergency room, instead. 

What is an Urgent Care Center?

An urgent care center is a form of immediate medical care. Most urgent care centers take both appointments and walk-in patients. 

What’s the difference between urgent care and a doctor’s office? A doctor’s office will have a more complete health history than an urgent care. Your doctor will know what medications you’re on, for example. They may even be able to prescribe medications over the phone if you’ve run out or are experiencing a condition that’s common to your health history.

Urgent care centers are a good option when you’re unable to see your primary care physician with an acute illness or minor injury or do not have a primary care physician. On top of efficient, effective service for the patient, they relieve some of the burden on emergency rooms. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, up to about a quarter of patients use the emergency room for non-emergent care. This is expensive for both the patient and the overall healthcare system. 

An emergency room is where you go for emergency concerns that are life threatening or injuries that could lead to permanent damage. An urgent care can address many of the more minor concerns often seen in an emergency department. 

When to Go to Urgent Care

Urgent care is a good alternative to a doctor’s office, but it shouldn’t be considered an alternative to the emergency room if you need emergency care. 

Again, it’s often used by patients who do have an urgent need for a doctor, but are unable to see their regular primary care physician. Those who don’t have a primary care physician are also common patients at an urgent care clinic. 

So when is it appropriate to go to urgent care? 

Minor Illnesses

Minor illnesses like the common cold, flu, ear infections, urinary tract infections, and allergies are all conditions treatable at urgent care. You can go to an urgent care if you’re experiencing the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Eye irritation or redness (e.g. symptoms of pink eye)
  • Severe sore throat
  • Severe cough
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Mild to moderate stomach pain
  • Skin rashes or infections
  • Mild to moderate asthma
  • Ear pain or wax build up
  • Burning with urination 
  • Sinus congestion and pain

Minor Injuries

Many minor injuries that are not life-threatening can be treated in an urgent care rather than an emergency room. Healthcare providers at an urgent care clinic have the ability to x-ray for potential breaks and rule out sprains, strains, and other minor injuries.

Minor injuries that can be seen an at urgent care include:

  • Broken bones or fractures in fingers and toes
  • Minor cuts that may need stitches
  • Minor burns
  • Mild to moderate back pain
  • Sprains, strains, and pulled muscles
  • Lacerations

An emergency room visit is more appropriate if your pain is severe, you’ve broken a large bone, or you’ve suffered a skull fracture or bone break near the eyes. 

Diagnostic Services

If you need diagnostic services but are unable to see your doctor in any reasonable length of time, an urgent care can help. Most urgent care clinics are equipped with X-rays and laboratory tests that will even cover most panels required for school or employment physicals, or for travel purposes. 

That includes testing for strep, mono, the flu, and COVID-19 testing. If you’re not feeling your best and there is a long wait to see your regular physician, there’s no reason you should wait. Accurate testing could be the determining factor in how you treat your symptoms and give you peace of mind.

An urgent care can also screen for STDs. Early detection is critical when it comes to the treatment of STDs and to an adult’s sexual health. Any adult that is sexually active should be tested for STDs at least annually, and more immediately if they know or are concerned that they’ve been exposed to an STD.

Occupational Health

Some urgent care clinics will treat and offer official reporting of workplace injuries for workers’ compensation claims. That includes the Doctor’s First Report that must be filed within 24 hours of any workplace illness or injury. Clinics that specialize in occupational medicine may also offer educational programs for employees around avoiding workplace injuries, including best practices to stay safe at work.

Occupational health also includes more standard care like employee or executive physicals. If your employment is contingent upon a physical, you may want to get that done as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. An urgent care can help.

the front entrance sign to an emergency room department in a city hospital

When to Go to the Emergency Room

Sometimes an emergency room visit is necessary. If your condition is life threatening, head to an emergency room immediately or call 911. 

Scenarios that are or may become life-threatening include a number of conditions and symptoms. A potential poisoning or drug overdose are both life-threatening situations. Flu symptoms may not seem serious at the start, but severe dehydration, extreme vomiting, or difficulties breathing may create an emergency situation. If you’re not sure whether a condition is serious, err on the side of caution. 

Let’s take a more detailed look at situations where an emergency room visit is necessary.

Heart Attack Symptoms

Heart attack symptoms include chest pain and accompanying pain in your arm, neck, or back. Go to an emergency room or call 911 immediately if your chest pain comes with fainting, excessive sweating, or an abnormal pulse. Those with a history of heart attack or other heart conditions should be particularly vigilant.

Stroke & Seizure Symptoms

A stroke can look like a sudden change in vision, sudden confusion, slurred speech, or weakness on one side of the body. Rapid treatment and diagnosis of the cause and location of the stroke is important to avoid long-term disability.

Seizure patients should also head to the emergency room if they are experiencing a seizure for the first time, the seizure lasts more than five minutes, the person is experiencing multiple seizures in succession, or there is a serious injury as a result of the seizure. 

An emergency room will be best-equipped to identify the cause of the seizure if you do not have a diagnosed seizure disability. Causes may include head or brain injury, poisoning, stroke, infection, medication side effects, or drug overdose. 

Trouble Breathing

Breathing problems that are not a result of mild to moderate asthma are an emergency situation. Choking or any unexpected allergic reaction that involves swelling of the airways or anaphylaxis is considered an emergency, especially in children. Anaphylaxis can also look like facial swelling, confusion, dizziness, wheezing, rapid heartbeat, or gastrointestinal distress. Call 911 immediately if breathing problems lead to a loss of consciousness. 

Major Injuries

Large bone breaks, severe burns, or severe cuts with uncontrolled bleeding are all emergency situations. Head, neck, or spine injuries followed by a loss of consciousness or loss of feeling in the affected area are emergency situations.

If you’re not sure whether a head injury was a serious one, monitor for symptoms. These include but are not limited to difficulties with balance, persistent drowsiness, numbness in any area of the body, memory loss, and sudden behavioral changes. Any patient with a history of concussions should see a medical professional as soon as possible after a possible head injury.

Serious Pregnancy Symptoms

Sudden or severe vaginal bleeding, sudden or severe pain in the belly, shortness of breath, or extreme vomiting are all emergency room symptoms in pregnancy that may signal pregnancy complications. Contact your OB-GYN with any mild to moderate symptoms to determine your next steps otherwise.

Emergency and urgency, dialing 911 on smartphone screen. Shallow depth of field.

When Should You Call 911?

If you are unable to get to an emergency room for any of the above symptoms or conditions, call 911. Any threat to life or limb is an emergency situation. 

Benefits of Visiting Urgent Care

There are a number of benefits of visiting an urgent care outside of it being an alternative to your doctor’s office or emergency room. 

You can make virtual appointments.

It’s more likely that you’ll be able to “see” a doctor virtually at urgent care. If you’re unsure about whether you need to come in to see a doctor in-person or simply feel safer with a virtual alternative, make a virtual appointment at an urgent care. Reliant Urgent Care offers convenient and efficient virtual care appointments to talk through your symptoms and give you the care you need.

Urgent care is more affordable.

Save money on an emergency room visit with a visit to an urgent care clinic, instead. Emergency rooms serve an important purpose in treating life-threatening conditions and severe injuries. They should not be used when your condition is treatable safely and effectively at urgent care. Even for those with good insurance, an emergency room visit can be a costly one.

Urgent care clinics are more flexible.

If you need to see a healthcare professional outside of the usual work hours, you may be out of luck with your regular doctor’s office. Many urgent care clinics cater to patients who need to see someone soon, but can’t take off work or move around childcare responsibilities to do so. Urgent care clinics are more accessible, offering services when many traditional doctor’s offices cannot. 

Your visit is more efficient.

Seeking non-emergency care in an emergency room can lead to long wait times before you see a doctor or nurse practitioner. Most urgent care clinics can get you seen within the hour. If you have an appointment at an urgent care, you may be able to get in and out of the clinic in an hour. 

This also means you may be seen by a nurse, nurse practitioner, or physician’s assistant. Rest assured that any healthcare professional you encounter at an urgent care is a trained professional. They’re qualified to handle the variety of health concerns that come through the door each day.

Urgent care offers a wide range of services.

Urgent cares offer a variety of additional services that you may not know about. At Reliant Urgent Care, we offer services to treat:

  • Common conditions like the cold and flu, urinary tract infections, ear infections, sinus infections, STDs, and more.
  • Ongoing conditions like diabetes, hypertension, anxiety, thyroid disorders, headaches, and more.
  • Minor injuries like sprains, strains, and muscle pains. 

We also offer services like: 

  • Everyday treatments that include birth control plans, physical therapy, and prescription refills.
  • Occupational medicine, including workplace educational programs, employee physicals, and same-day reporting of workplace illnesses or injuries.
  • Fast and reliable COVID-19 testing to meet return-to-work standards or travel requirements.

Choose an Urgent Care That Works for You

Knowing where to go when an urgent situation occurs is important. Reliant has a number of convenient locations throughout the Los Angeles area to give you the attention you need and get you back to feeling your best. Contact us at Reliant to book an appointment with one of our healthcare professionals today.