ER, Urgent Care or Physician -- Know Where to Go

ER, Urgent Care or Physician -- Know Where to Go

Whether it’s a bump on the head or a really bad cold, when your body suffers a blow, all you want to do is feel better.

But where do you go to get the care you need?

Next time you experience a nasty fall or you think you’re suffering from a particularly serious case of the flu, this cheat sheet may help you decide whether you need the emergency room, an urgent care clinic or a call to your doctor.

Head to the ER if:

  • You think you’re suffering a heart attack. If you’re experiencing chest pain lasting for more than a few minutes, pressure or squeezing in the chest, a sense of fullness, shortness of breath, pain radiating down the arms, pain in the jaw or neck, cold sweats, nausea, dizziness or fatigue, call 9-1-1.
  • You’ve suffered a head injury. A slight bump on the head is one thing, but if you suffer a blow that causes you to feel dizzy, confused or sleepy, lose consciousness, vomit, faint or have trouble seeing, walking or talking, you need to go to the emergency room to be evaluated.
  • You have a seizure, but haven’t been diagnosed with epilepsy. Emergency care is recommended if a seizure lasts for more than five minutes, the person stops breathing, the person suffers a serious injury as a result, or the seizure occurs with a person who has diabetes, is pregnant, has a high fever or suffered a blow to the head.
  • Your high fever won’t go down. Fevers definitely make you feel terrible, but they can also be a sign that your body is fighting off an illness. However, if your fever is 105 degrees Fahrenheit and does not come down with treatment and/or is accompanied by trouble breathing, sore throat or difficulty swallowing, leg swelling, a bad headache, nausea, confusion, a rash, a stiff jaw or neck, vomiting or drowsiness, you should go to the ER. These could be signs of serious conditions such as meningitis or tetanus.
  • You think you’ve broken a bone. A scrape may not be an emergency, but a deep wound or broken bone is serious. Skip the phone call to the doctor and go to the emergency room if you’ve experienced a severe break. Signs of a broken bone include immediate swelling and discoloration of the injured area, bruising, not being able to put weight on it or the bone looking misshapen or out of place. Call 9-1-1 immediately if there’s a suspected broken bone in the head, neck, back, hip, pelvis or upper leg, if there’s severe bleeding or the bone is coming out of the skin. 

Make a trip to urgent care when:

  • You’ve sprained your ankle. A twisted ankle is painful, but usually isn’t severe enough to warrant a trip to ER. Physicians at your local urgent care clinic can examine your injury and determine your best course of treatment.
  • You need an X-ray. For sprains, strains and less severe fractures (such as the hands, wrists or feet and ankles that do not have any of the warning signs listed above), an urgent care center can take X-rays and perform a physical exam to help you determine the severity of your injury.
  • You’ve got a bad cold or the flu. When you’ve been sidetracked by a bad sore throat, cough or the flu over the weekend, it can be hard to wait until your doctor’s office has an opening for an appointment the next week. Avoid the busy ER and visit urgent care when you’ve got a severe sore throat, potential ear infection, bad cough or fever without a rash. Urgent care physicians can also administer flu shots.

Smart Patient Tip: Not every urgent care facility is the same – some can take X-rays, while others cannot. Check out the urgent care centers in your area to determine which one will work best for you and your family now, so you’ll know where to go the next time you need help.

Call your doctor: If you’re not dealing with a life-threatening situation, and you believe you can wait to receive care until the next day or after the weekend, your best bet will always be your doctor’s office. They know your medical history, have records of your medications and past treatments and will likely cost you less out-of-pocket. It’s usually safe to wait for your physician when you have or need:

  • Common colds or illnesses
  • Routine tests
  • Shots and vaccinations
  • Health exams

When it comes to medical emergencies, each case is different. But it’s always better to be safe than sorry. If you ever have any doubts, don’t wait -- head to the hospital immediately.

Medically reviewed in August 2019.

Why You Should Always Seek Second Opinions
Why You Should Always Seek Second Opinions
Stand-up legend Rodney Dangerfield became famous for his quips about how he got no respect from anyone. “My psychiatrist told me I’m going crazy,” wen...
Read More
How can I prepare my school-age child for a hospital stay?
Alliance For Kids®Alliance For Kids®
To prepare your school-age child for a hospital stay, try the following: Begin preparation about...
More Answers
Know Before You Go: Routine Physical
Know Before You Go: Routine PhysicalKnow Before You Go: Routine PhysicalKnow Before You Go: Routine PhysicalKnow Before You Go: Routine Physical
Make the most of your routine physical by following these simple steps before your appointment.
Start Slideshow
Dr. Peter Hulick - What Is Personalized Medicine?
Dr. Peter Hulick - What Is Personalized Medicine?