Should I go to a Physician, Urgent Care, or the ER?

Each medical situation is different. Plan your treatment approach with this guide.

waiting room

Medically reviewed in September 2021

Updated on March 7, 2023

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 have 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 healthcare provider (HCP).

When to head to the ER
If any of these scenarious apply to you, it's key to get care as quickly as possible.

You think you’re having 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 911.

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. If your fever is 105 degrees Fahrenheit, however, 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 your HCP 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 911 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. 

When to make a trip to urgent care
You need to be seen quickly, but it's not a crisis situation.

You’ve sprained your ankle. A twisted ankle is painful, but usually isn’t severe enough to warrant a trip to ER. Providers 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 HCP'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 and COVID vaccines.

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.

When to call your healthcare provider
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 HCP'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.

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