What You Should Know About Urgent Care—and When to Use It

Life-threatening emergencies call for a trip to the ER, but many issues can be treated at a convenient walk-in clinic.

woman patient seeing woman provider in office

Updated on January 29, 2024.

It's Saturday afternoon. Your son has a fever. Or maybe your husband sprained his ankle. Or perhaps you cut your hand making dinner. 

The problem is, your doctor's office is closed until Monday. And you're not sure you need the emergency room. But there's a third option: urgent care.

Urgent care centers treat a range of serious, but non-life-threatening health problems, including mild illnesses, minor fractures, strains, sprains, and skin rashes.

"They’re typically available 365 days a year, on weekends and evenings," says Michael Kaplan, MD. He’s a family medicine doctor at CareNow Urgent Care in Houston, Texas.

Urgent care is ideal when your healthcare provider’s (HCP) office is closed, or when they are booked for a long time. You don’t need an appointment. Urgent care usually offers same-day treatment. And they accept most health insurance, although some don’t take Medicaid.

Where you go for care matters

Illness and injury can happen without warning. They can make us wonder where to go, especially if the problem seems serious. But not all health troubles need the ER.

In fact, relying on ERs all the time can lead to overcrowding. This means people who need medical help most may not get it. Going to urgent care instead can reduce the burden on emergency workers. It can also help you get treated faster.

Studies have shown that many medical problems can be treated at urgent care, Dr. Kaplan says. Services can vary, but normally include X-rays and labs. They also include occupational medicine, which handles work-related injuries.

Urgent care centers can also treat:

  • Fevers
  • Cuts that need stitches
  • Dehydration, such as from food poisoning
  • Bug bites
  • Minor fractures, like fingers or toes
  • Some infections, such as the flu, urinary tract infections, and strep throat
  • Mild-to-moderate asthma issues

There is often a big price difference, too. The average urgent care trip costs much less than the average ER trip. 

When urgent care isn't enough

Don’t sacrifice your health because of time or money. In an emergency, your life is what matters most. Some illnesses or injuries can't be treated at urgent care.

"Acute problems, such as heart attacks or severe abdominal pain—any life- or limb-threatening conditions—need to be treated in an ER," Kaplan says. 

Emergency room workers treat the sickest patients first. If you’re in danger, they’ll take you ahead of others with less-serious problems.

There are many different life-threatening emergencies. They involve injury or illness that could cause death, brain damage, or organ failure. These include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath, including heavy, rapid, or irregular breathing
  • Signs of a stroke, like a sudden and severe headache, sudden weakness on one side, confusion, loss of balance, or trouble speaking 
  • Loss of consciousness or head injuries
  • Potential loss of limb
  • Heavy bleeding
  • Gunshot or knife wounds
  • Seizures
  • Second- or third-degree burns
  • Fever in an infant under 3 months old

People with suicidal thoughts should also go to an emergency room right away. If you or someone else is at risk but not actively planning suicide, call, text, or chat the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. 

Urgent care can’t replace your HCP

It’s comforting to know urgent care can help in a crisis. But you should still keep routine appointments with your regular HCP. 

"They offer preventive medicine services like immunizations and screenings," Kaplan says. "They also provide essential care and management for ongoing chronic diseases."

Your HCP also keeps track of your health over time. This can include: 

  • Medical conditions
  • Medications
  • Tests
  • Surgeries and other procedures

They can get to know you and your special medical needs, too. This can help them speak for you if you are:

  • Sent to a new specialist
  • Undergoing diagnostic tests
  • Being hospitalized

"And, of course, they often can take care of urgent care-like visits," Kaplan adds. 

When you need help, it’s worth giving your HCP a call. If they can’t see you right away, they can help you decide if you should seek urgent care or visit the ER.

Article sources open article sources

MedlinePlus. When to use the emergency room – adult. Reviewed July 25, 2022.
Mayo Clinic. Emergency vs. Urgent Care: What’s the difference? February 9, 2021.
Cigna. Urgent Care vs. the Emergency Room. Accessed January 25, 2024.
Weinick RM, Burns RM, Mehrotra A. Many emergency department visits could be managed at urgent care centers and retail clinics. Health Aff (Millwood). 2010 Sep;29(9):1630-6.
Mayo Clinic. Suicide: What to do when someone is suicidal. January 31, 2018.
AdventistHealth. Navigating emergencies during a pandemic: Should I go to the ER or urgent care? April 20, 2020.
PhysicianOne Urgent Care. COVID-19 FAQs & Important Updates. Accessed September 22, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Emergency Department Visits. November 3, 2023.
Medline Plus. Stroke. Reviewed April 30, 2018.
988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Accessed January 29, 2024.

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