Senior safety: Knowing when to go to the emergency room versus urgent care

How do you know when to go to the emergency room and when to go to urgent care? Learning how to tell which type of care is best, can literally be a life saver.

Emergency room versus urgent care can be a hard decision under inevitable chaos. You already know to schedule regular wellness appointments at your doctor’s primary care clinic. But where do you go for more acute injuries and illnesses? When you don’t feel well, you want immediate care.

Knowing when to go to urgent care and when to go to the emergency room could get you the right care, faster!

Some people think they will be seen more quickly in the ER, but ERs see the most acute patients first. That means if your injury or illness isn’t serious, you may have to wait to see a doctor. Also, ERs are often busiest on Mondays and in the evenings.

When to go to the ER

You should go to the ER if you are in a life-or-death situation with any of the following symptoms:

  • Inability to breathe
  • Major trauma
  • Lost consciousness
  • Altered mental state
  • Head injury
  • Serious abdominal pain
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions
  • Chest pain
  • Stroke
  • Uncontrollable bleeding
  • Broken bones with the bone exposed

When to go to Urgent Care

Urgent care is for same-day care when you are experiencing problems like:

  • Breathing difficulty
  • Ear discomfort
  • Eye infections
  • Migraines and headaches
  • Sprains, strains and broken bones
  • Skin irritations
  • Upset stomach or stomach pain
  • Concerns of urinary, bladder or sexually transmitted infections
  • Work injuries (workers compensation)
  • Physical exams

Many urgent care clinics have convenient scheduling options so you can book your appointment online or by phone — and relax at home instead of sitting in a waiting room.

It’s important to note that some urgent care clinics cannot see patients younger than three months old, do not offer IV fluids/medication and do not have narcotics on site.

Other Options for when it isn’t a life-or-death situation

Many insurance carriers provide 24-hour nurse advice lines you can call if you aren’t sure where to go. Urgent and same-day care clinics often have expanded hours so you can get care outside of business hours.

Primary care or family medicine offices are usually open during business hours, sometimes with offset hours to accommodate work schedules.

The biggest takeaway

If you fear you have a serious, life-threatening illness or injury — you should go to the nearest ER or call 911.

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