Deeper Look: Should I Go to the Emergency Room, or the Urgent Care Center?

In a recent article, we talked briefly about the differences between an urgent care center and an emergency room. As noted there, the two should not be seen as somehow butting heads, or in contention with one another — urgent care centers do more to replace your general care physician than they do a trip to the emergency room. Emergency rooms, as the name implies, are for things that are an emergency, such as a heart attack. Urgent care centers, on the other hand, are there to treat things that need expedited, but not immediate medical care. You might go to an urgent care center for a sprained ankle, or the flu. The key difference lies in the title: emergency rooms are for emergencies, urgent care centers are for urgencies.

The line between the two is thin, though. There are many things that seem like an emergency when they are not, and vice versa. Looking over a few common cases, you will begin to see a pattern develop in when you should use each facility. All things considered, it is clear to see when you need urgent care, and when you need an ambulance. Do you know what should be treated at an urgent care center?

Should I Go to Urgent Care or the Emergency Room for…

…a Broken Limb?

If you break any major bone, you should certainly head to an emergency room. Unlike urgent care centers, most emergency rooms are equipped with surgical staff.  Because of this, they are much better equipped to handle things like a broken limb. Broken limbs require immediate care, otherwise, they will cause severe pain and long-term bone deformity. However, certain broken bones can be handled at an urgent care center. If you break any major limbs – an arm, or leg – then you need to be treated at an emergency room. However, breaks or fractures of minor bones, such as a finger or toe, can be treated at an urgent care center, as the treatment does not require surgery.

…an Allergic Reaction?

Anaphylactic shock, or an allergic reaction, should preferably be treated at an emergency room. However, urgent care centers are equipped to handle them, as well. As we’ve discussed before, anaphylactic shock takes an average of 13 minutes to become fatal. Because of this, it is recommended that you call for an ambulance, who will reduce the shock and bring you to the nearest emergency room. However, if you are close to an urgent care center, they will rush to treat you.

Additionally, there are allergic reactions that do not lead to anaphylactic shock. For example, a severe food allergy can cause a sudden rash. This rash will be itchy, uncomfortable, but rarely painful. This type of allergic reaction is not an emergency if caught early, and can be treated at an urgent care center. Once you’ve arrived at the facility, they will prescribe hydrocortisone, or a similar hormonal steroid, which will see the rash cleared away before further problems develop.

…a Fever?

A large majority of fevers can be treated at an urgent care center. Fevers are a common symptom of many different viruses and infections and are easily dealt with. In fact, a fever is almost never the most urgent issue a patient has. Instead, it is a symptom of something that must be quickly dealt with. Fevers are commonplace at urgent care centers.

However, fevers can become an emergency fairly easily. If your temperature rises above 102.2 degrees Fahrenheit, then your fever is an emergency and should be treated at an emergency room. Your fever has also become an emergency if it is accompanied by a rash. A rash without a fever can be treated at an urgent care center, and a fever without a rash can be treated at an urgent care center. When the two are seen in tandem, though, it is an emergency room problem.

…Vomiting?

Vomiting is only rarely a medical emergency. Severe vomiting can and should be treated at an urgent care center, where staff will be equipped to handle all of the illnesses that can induce vomiting. Vomiting can be a sign of something as mundane as the flu, or something much worse. Because of this, the vomiting itself is rarely enough information to determine what a patient is suffering from. Doctors at an urgent care center will be able to diagnose the patient and help to clear away both the symptom and the cause.

However, much like fevers, there are still rare cases where vomiting requires treatment at an emergency room. One of the most common cases is food poisoning, which will induce sudden, and intense vomiting. If you have felt normal in the past 24 hours, but are now beginning to vomit vehemently, you should seek emergency care. You will also need to seek emergency medical attention if you are unable to keep down clear fluids. If you aren’t able to keep down water, you will require rehydration through an IV.

Other symptoms can also point to vomiting being a medical emergency. If your vomiting is coupled with diarrhea, you should certainly seek emergency care. You should do the same if your vomiting is paired with a high-grade fever. While the combination is often seen as a result of influenza, there are several causes for concern. For example, vomiting paired with a high-grade fever can be an early sign of Crohn’s disease.

Finally, you should head to an emergency room after vomiting if you see blood, even if it’s just a small amount. There are a few reasons that vomiting can become bloody, the most mundane of which being that the vomit has scratched your throat. However, even that is an experience you don’t want to handle without medical attention.

…Bleeding?

Bleeding is one of the more intricate issues when it comes to determining what is an absolute emergency. Often, bleeding requires some at-home care before it can be decided. If the bleeding can not be stopped with mild pressure, then it is a medical emergency. Tourniquets can be applied at this point, but only if you are trained in doing so. Do not attempt to tourniquet an injury if you are not entirely sure how: it can and will cause further issues. If the bleeding is uncontrollable, you should call an ambulance immediately. You should also seek emergency care if you are beginning to bleed in a way that you should not. As noted above, you should seem emergency care if you see blood in your vomit. The same is true of blood in your stool (and, similarly, bloody diarrhea), or flecks of blood after a cough. Urgent care centers can treat bloody noses and similarly mundane bleeding.

…Asthma?

All asthma attacks should be treated as a medical emergency, and as such should be treated at an emergency room. However, more mild cases of asthma can be treated at an urgent care center. Several symptoms of asthma are a cause for concern that should be seen by a doctor as soon as possible — this is the type of care you are likely to get at an urgent care center. You can wait for your general care physician if you need to use quick-relief medicine more than 2 days a week, if you are beginning to cough more often than normal, or your peak flow has been worsening. You should seek urgent attention if you have a new or high fever, your coughing or wheezing suddenly worsens, you begin to cough up brown or bloody mucus, you have new or worse trouble breathing, or your symptoms are not relieved after following an asthma action plan.

Even if you don’t have asthma, you should seek urgent care if these symptoms begin to develop. It’s not uncommon for asthma to go untreated, especially in smokers and early teens.

…a Burn?

Burns often do not require emergency care. You can determine whether or not a burn needs emergency care by its location, size, and severity. You should head to the emergency room if you’ve received a burn on your face, close to your eyes, ears, or mouth, or if the burn is close to your genitals. You should also seek emergency care if the burn covers a significant area of your body — generally, anything larger than your palm requires emergency care. Finally, burns require emergency care when they cause skin discoloration, blister before 24 hours after the incident, or if they are not painful. Otherwise, a burn should be seen by your general care physician as soon as possible, or at an urgent care center. Even minor burns are at risk for infection, which can cause several issues in the long-term. Some very minor burns can be treated at home with aloe and Neosporin, but it’s always best to err on the side of caution.

The differences between emergency and urgency are nuanced, but it’s not hard to determine where you need to go on the fly. If you are worried about long-term disfigurement or potential fatality, you should call an ambulance and head to the emergency room. Otherwise, urgent care will do. It is always best to err on the side of caution, though. In any case, you should seek care. If you’ve come to the wrong place, an emergency room will direct you to the nearest urgent care center, while an urgent care center will do everything in their power to help you while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.

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