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Emergency department or urgent care?


Jeanette Mercer, MD, is a family physician at Skyline Urgent Care In Loveland, Colo.

Question: Where can I go for medical help when my primary care physician is unavailable?

Answer: Deciding whether to go to the emergency room or the urgent care clinic is a common dilemma.

Urgent care clinics are generally more appropriate for less serious injuries or illnesses and their fees are less than those at an emergency department in a hospital. The following list does not include every potential condition that requires treatment, but does offer some general guidelines.

If you have the following symptoms, you should go to the nearest hospital emergency room:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Poisoning or overdose
  • Heavy or uncontrolled bleeding
  • Sudden change in mental ability
  • Sudden onset of sharp or severe pain
  • Sudden severe headache
  • Dislocated joint
  • Broken bones with deformity or that break the skin
  • Vaginal bleeding during a pregnancy
  •  Major burn
  • Severe reaction to an insect bite, medication or food

A visit to urgent care is generally more appropriate if you have:

  • Minor burns or injuries
  • Minor cuts
  • Sore throat
  • Sprains or strains
  • Cold or flu symptoms
  • Ear infections
  • Mild asthma
  • Animal bites
  • Minor broken bones
  • Urinary tract infection

If you have any doubt, treat it as an emergency and come to the emergency room.

Page Last Modified: 10/21/2015
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