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When to Go to Urgent Care versus the Emergency Room

Where should you go to receive medical care? It may depend on the type of pain or discomfort you are experiencing.

When you have an illness or injury, visiting the right type of medical facility is essential for getting the best care. With so many options, it can be hard to decide whether to visit a walk-in clinic, urgent care center or emergency room (ER). Read our guide to learn where to seek care for different medical issues.

What’s the difference between urgent Care and the emergency room?

Each type of facility has its own important role in protecting your health. If your life is in immediate danger, call an ambulance or head to the closest ER right away. If you could benefit from fast medical care, but it’s not an emergency, an urgent care clinic can provide the help you need.

What is urgent care?

Urgent care centers provide immediate assistance for non-life-threatening medical issues. Most centers offer the option to visit without an appointment.

Through urgent care, patients can receive treatment for a wide range of conditions. This is made possible through advanced medical equipment, along with rigorous training and hiring practices.

“We’re seeing so many diverse medical needs at our centers each day,” says Jenilee Foster, director of education and training at WellNow Urgent Care. “Urgent care staff need to be up to date on the many conditions we treat. That means providing ongoing training opportunities to keep our staff at the top of their game.

When to Go to an Urgent Care Clinic

Urgent care clinics like WellNow Urgent Care are equipped to handle non-life-threatening illnesses, injuries and conditions. When you need quick care, but your condition is not an emergency, an urgent care clinic is a good choice. Urgent care clinics have extended hours to operate outside of when most primary care doctors are available, so you can see a medical provider quickly — and no appointment is necessary for most facilities.

WellNow Urgent Care also offers the ability to save your spot online, making your
healthcare experience even more efficient.

What can I have treated at urgent care?

At an urgent care center, you can have a variety of medical conditions treated, including:

  • Minor injuries such as cuts, scrapes, burns, sprains and strains

  • Common illnesses like the common cold, the flu, sinus infections, ear infections, urinary tract infections (UTIs), pink eye, strep throat and STIs (sexually transmitted infections)

  • Skin conditions, including rashes and insect bites

  • Gastrointestinal symptoms such as stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea

  • Non-emergency respiratory issues, including respiratory infections and mild asthma flare-ups

  • Routine medical services such as, physical exams, medical tests and prescription refills

What is a walk-in clinic?

Walk-in clinics offer basic medical services without an appointment. Services can include
vaccinations, physical exams, basic diagnostic tests and treatment for minor illnesses and

When to Go to a Walk-in Clinic

Walk-in clinics are suitable for minor health concerns that require attention but are not urgent. These can include conditions like sore throats, small injuries, mild infections, routine check-ups and vaccinations.

Patients can come to a walk-in clinic without scheduling an appointment in advance. This often means shorter wait times compared to primary care offices or emergency rooms.

What can I have treated as a walk-in clinic?

Common conditions treated at walk-in clinics include colds, flus, minor cuts and burns, ear infections, urinary tract infections and mild allergic reactions. Walk-in clinics may also offer services such as flu shots, travel vaccinations, routine physical exams and basic laboratory tests.

What is the ER?

The emergency room, also known as the emergency department (ED), is a specialized medical facility within a hospital. Emergency rooms are equipped to handle acute and life- threatening medical emergencies. They have specialized equipment and staff trained to handle critical situations such as heart attacks, strokes, severe trauma and other medical crises.

When to Visit an Emergency Room

If you have a life-threatening injury or illness, the correct medical facility for you is the emergency room. Emergency rooms are appropriate for issues that could result in severe disability, impairment or death if not treated. If you’re experiencing any of the following medical conditions, you should go to an emergency room right away:

  • Chest Pain

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Sudden numbness or paralysis of a limb

  • Fainting or seizures

  • Excessive or uncontrolled bleeding

  • Head injuries

  • Sudden disorientation, confusion, or changes in vision

  • Serious burns

  • Suicidal thoughts or psychosis

  • Any fever in babies under 2 months old, or a fever of 103 F (39.4 C) or higher in adults

  • Abdominal pain that is strong and localized

  • Stroke or heart attack symptoms

  • Blood in your vomit or when coughing

  • Severe allergic reactions

  • Nonstop diarrhea or vomiting

  • Fractures with an open wound

  • Inhalation of noxious fumes

Patients with life-threatening conditions are prioritized for immediate treatment at the ER. This means that patients with non-urgent conditions tend to have long wait times, while life-threatening conditions are treated right away.

Emergency rooms operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year.

Calling 911 in an Emergency

If you’re experiencing a medical emergency, get help by calling 911. You may receive instructions from the emergency dispatcher and life-saving treatments from first responders.

Calling 911 quickly can help save lives and minimize the impact of medical emergencies. Want to learn more? Get answers to some FAQs about calling 911.

Cost Comparison

While it may be tempting to head straight for the ER when experiencing a medical problem, it’s important to be aware that if you visit the ER when emergency care is not needed, you could end up paying high out-of-pocket costs. The cost of a visit to an urgent care clinic will generally be significantly lower than a visit to the ER. Typically you’ll only have one charge at an urgent care center versus two charges at an emergency room (one for the emergency room itself and one for the physician).

Get the Right Care at the Right Time

Here are a few key points to consider when experiencing a medical problem:

  • What is the severity of your condition?

  • Will waiting for care be potentially life-threatening?

  • What is covered by your insurance provider?

As always, if you aren’t sure what constitutes an emergency or what kind of visits are covered by your plan, contact your insurance provider or check your plan documents. Learning the difference between the kinds of care an urgent care clinic provides compared to an emergency room can help save you time, money and get you the best care you need.

We hope that you use this guide to create your own action plan so that if an unexpected crisis occurs you can decide if you need to go to an urgent care, walk-in clinic or
emergency room.

If you decide an urgent care clinic is right for your needs, choose WellNow. Our dedicated medical team provides comprehensive care and treatment to help prevent further issues.

Reserve your spot at a WellNow clinic near you.

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WellNow Urgent Care is a series of urgent care clinics and virtual care serving the Midwest and Northeastern United States in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Information contained in this blog is for informational or educational purposes only and does not substitute professional medical advice or consultations with healthcare professionals. The content is not meant to be complete or exhaustive or to apply to any specific individual's medical condition. Always refer to the personalized information given to you by your doctor or contact us directly.