What Is Urgent Care—Plus Times You Should Go

What Is Urgent Care—Plus Times You Should Go

Life-threatening emergencies call for a trip to the ER, but most cuts and sprains can be treated at a convenient walk-in clinic.

It's Saturday afternoon and your son has come down with a fever. Or maybe your husband sprained his ankle on a jog. Your doctor's office is closed until Monday and you're not sure the situation is serious enough for a trip to the emergency department. There's a third option: urgent care.

Urgent care centers treat a range of serious, but non-life-threatening health problems, like 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, a family medicine doctor from CareNow Urgent Care in Houston, Texas.

These centers are ideal if your family doctor or general practitioner’s office is closed or booked though the coming weeks or months. Urgent care facilities typically offer same-day treatment, accept most forms of insurance—although some don’t take Medicaid—and don’t require an appointment.

Where you go for care matters
Illness and injury often appears without warning and can leave us questioning where to go for care, especially if symptoms seem severe. But, not all ailments need to be treated in the ER. “Studies have shown that up to 80 percent of ER visits could have been treated in an urgent care setting,” Kaplan says. When people don’t seek the proper care, emergency departments get overcrowded and the people who need help most can’t get it. Your local urgent care may be able to treat you quickly.

“The services provided at urgent care centers may vary,” Kaplan says. “But they normally include on-site X-rays, labs and occupational medicine.”

Urgent care centers can treat:

  • Fevers
  • Cuts that need stitches
  • Dehydration, for example, from food poisoning 
  • Bug bites
  • Last-minute prescription refills
  • Minor fractures, like fingers or toes
  • Non-life-threatening infections like the flu, urinary tract infections and strep throat
  • Mild to moderate asthma issues

The price difference can also be staggering. “The average urgent care visit costs about $150,” says Kaplan. “A typical ER visit starts close to $800 or more.”

But don’t be careless with your health in the name of time or money. In an emergency situation, your life is what matters most. Emergency room nurses prioritize the sickest patients first. If you’re in a dire situation, they’ll take you ahead of others whose problems might be less serious.

When urgent care isn't enough
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,” explains Kaplan.

Life-threatening emergencies include injury or illness that could result in death, brain damage or organ failure, like:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath, including heavy, rapid or irregular breathing
  • Signs of a stroke, like a sudden and severe headache, 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 three months old

Anyone having suicidal thoughts should be immediately evaluated in the emergency room, too. Call 911 and stay with the person until emergency help arrives. If you or someone else is at risk, but not actively planning to complete a suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK and encourage others to do the same.

Urgent care can’t replace your GP
It’s comforting to know urgent care can help in a pinch, but you should still keep routine appointments with your healthcare provider. “They offer preventive medicine services like immunizations and screenings,” Kaplan explains. “They also provide essential care and management for ongoing chronic diseases.”

Your general practitioner keeps track of conditions, medications, tests and procedures over time. They get to know you personally, including your body’s unique quirks and special medical needs. This helps them advocate for you if you’re sent to a new specialist, undergoing diagnostic tests or being hospitalized.

“And, of course, they often can take care of urgent care-like visits,” Kaplan adds. At the end of the day, it’s worth giving your family doctor a call; if they can’t see you right away, they can at least help you determine if you should seek urgent care or visit the ER.


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