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

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

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

Medically reviewed in September 2020

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.

Urgent care facilities are ideal if your healthcare provider (HCP) or primary care physician’s (PCP) office is closed or booked though the coming weeks or months, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The centers 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 can happen without warning and leave us questioning where to go—especially if the problem seems severe. But not all health troubles need to be addressed in the ER.

Studies have shown that a significant proportion of ER visits can be treated in an urgent care setting, Dr. Kaplan explains. Relying on ERs in these situations can contribute to overcrowding, and people who need medical help most may not be able to get it. Visiting your local urgent care instead can lessen the burden on emergency workers—and help you access the appropriate treatment faster.

Services provided at urgent care centers can vary, Kaplan adds, but they normally include on-site X-rays, labs and occupational medicine, which is devoted to treating work-related injuries.

In many parts of the country, patients can visit urgent cares for flu shots and COVID-19 tests, as well. If you are being tested for or have symptoms of COVID-19, be sure to alert the staff. Remember to wear your mask to the appointment and follow all office safety and social distancing rules.

Urgent care centers can also treat:

  • Fevers
  • Cuts that need stitches
  • Dehydration, such as 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

Take note, too, that the price difference between a hospital trip and an urgent care trip can be staggering. “The average urgent care visit costs about $150,” says Kaplan. “A typical ER visit starts close to $800 or more.”

When urgent care isn't enough
Don’t be careless with your health in the name of time or money. In an emergency situation, 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 explains. 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.

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

  • 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 three months old

Anyone having suicidal thoughts should be immediately evaluated in an emergency room, too. 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 or text NAMI to 741741—and encourage others to do the same.

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

Your HCP keeps track of conditions, medications, tests and procedures over time, as well. 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. When you need help, it’s worth giving your HCP 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.

Sources:

MedlinePlus. “When to use the emergency room – adult.” Reviewed August 4, 2018. Accessed September 16, 2020.
Cigna. “Urgent Care vs. the Emergency Room.” 2020. Accessed September 16, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Emergency Department Visits.” Reviewed February 21, 2020. Accessed September 16, 2020.
Mount Sinai. “What is Urgent Care and When Should You Use It?” 2020. Accessed September 16, 2020.
N Caldwell, T Srebotnjak, et al. "’How much will I get charged for this?’ Patient charges for top ten diagnoses in the emergency department.” PLoS One. 2013;8(2):e55491.
Medline Plus. “Stroke.” Reviewed April 30, 2018.
Mayo Clinic. “Suicide: What to do when someone is suicidal.” January 31, 2018. Accessed September 16, 2020.
AdventistHealth. “Navigating emergencies during a pandemic: Should I go to the ER or urgent care?” April 20, 2020. Accessed September 22, 2020.
PhysicianOne Urgent Care. “COVID-19 FAQs & Important Updates.” 2020. Accessed September 22, 2020.

More On First Aid, Safety & Preparedness

5 Lifesaving Emergency Tips

article

5 Lifesaving Emergency Tips
Most people don’t think about what they’d do in an emergency beyond calling 911. But did you know that the average time for an ambulance to arrive fro...
Ice vs. Heat: Which Is Better for Pain?

article

Ice vs. Heat: Which Is Better for Pain?
Whether chronic or acute, aches, pains and injuries can put a damper on everyday activities. Along with rest and elevation, we've been told that heat ...
Say Goodbye to Antibacterial Soaps

article

Say Goodbye to Antibacterial Soaps
In the 1966 campy TV romp, It’s About Time, two astronauts, Mac and Hector (Frank Aletter and Jack Mullaney) travel back in time and meet cave-dweller...
How to Perform the Heimlich Maneuver

video

How to Perform the Heimlich Maneuver
Are you able to help someone who is choking? Watch this video guide to prepare you for a choking emergency.