Urgent Care vs. Emergency Room: Which One Should You Go to?

Americans with private health insurance make 27 million emergency room visits each year. Of that number, two-thirds are not actual emergencies. Such trips are what health experts refer to as “avoidable.”

They’re avoidable because primary care doctors could have otherwise treated their health woes. In turn, many of these doctors offer their services through urgent care centers.

For that reason, it’s best to learn when to go for urgent care vs. emergency room services. After all, you don’t want to get stuck for hours in the ER lobby. You definitely don’t want to pay the hefty price of getting treatment from an ER, either.

To that end, we came up with this guide comparing urgent care vs. ER situations. Read on to discover when to go to which.

Urgent Care vs. Emergency Room Services: The Technical Difference

Urgent care is professional medical care for non-emergency or non-life-threatening conditions. Urgent care centers are for injuries or illnesses requiring care within 24 hours. They also provide diagnostic and laboratory services.

By contrast, emergency rooms are for injuries or illnesses that pose the risk of death. That’s why they’re open 24 hours a day, as severe injuries and ailments can kill in a matter of minutes or even seconds.

What Constitutes a Medical Emergency?

A medical emergency is any sudden or acute injury or illness that can endanger a person’s life. The same goes for injuries or illnesses that can cause permanent health impairment.

The following are examples of when to go to the ER for conditions considered as emergencies.

Severe and Non-Stop Bleeding

Experts estimate that as of 2020, severe trauma causes more than 8 million deaths each year. Hemorrhage, the acute loss of blood from injured blood vessels, accounts for 35% of these. Gunshot and stab wounds are some of the leading causes of such injuries.

Car crashes and kitchen accidents, such as knife wounds, can also cause hemorrhage. Any injury that causes continuous blood loss in huge amounts is a medical emergency.

Heart Attack

Heart attacks are some of the most common medical emergencies in the US, occurring at a rate of one per 40 seconds. That translates to over 800,000 cases of heart attacks each year. All cases of heart attacks require emergency room treatment.


Strokes are life-threatening conditions, as they cut the blood supply to the brain. They happen to about 795,000 people in the US each year. ER treatment is a must for people who suffer a stroke, as more than 17% of strokes lead to death.

Even non-fatal strokes can cause chronic paralysis, loss of mobility, and memory loss.

Third- and Fourth-Degree Burns

Each year, US hospitals and ERs treat about 450,000 patients for burn injuries. Less than 1% of these result in deaths, but they still claim up to 3,400 lives every year. Many of these deadly burns are third and fourth-degree burns.

Third- and fourth-degree burns require emergency treatment as they’re the most severe. They extend through all the layers of the skin, causing massive tissue and nerve damage.

Food Poisoning

An estimated 48 million people in the US get sick due to food poisoning every year. Of these individuals, 128,000 require hospitalization.

Severe food poisoning can cause pain and diarrhea that doesn’t go away after three days. It also results in high fever, speech and vision problems, and severe dehydration. These symptoms warrant emergency medical help.

Severe Poisoning Symptoms

Accidental non-food poisoning claimed the lives of an estimated 65,773 people in the US. These incidents result from ingesting chemicals or substances, as well as drug overdoses. They can cause severe stomach pain, vomiting, and even loss of consciousness.

Emergency medical services are crucial for these deadly cases of poisoning.

What Constitutes Urgent Medical Conditions?

These are illnesses or injuries requiring treatment in no more than 24 hours. While they do not pose an immediate threat of death, they still need prompt medical attention. These include health conditions with acute minor to moderate symptoms.

Below are some examples of when to go to urgent care.

Minor Allergic Reactions

If you have minor allergic reactions, such as sniffles and sneezes, you can rely on urgent care. You can also find a local option for urgent care services if you have minor allergic rashes. These facilities can also treat minor eye itchiness and redness caused by allergens.

Do note that severe allergies can cause severe eye and face swelling, as well as anaphylaxis. In these instances, it’s crucial to go to the emergency room. Extreme inflammation can be deadly as it can block the airways and cut your oxygen supply.

Minor Infections

Urgent care centers can treat minor infections of the eyes, ears, nose, throat, and skin. Most also have diagnostic and treatment services for urinary tract infections. You can simply walk into one of these facilities to receive ant-infection medications.

Non-Emergency Injuries

Emergency departments treated over 24.82 million non-fatal injuries in the US in 2019. More than 1.64 million of these were for cuts or piercing injuries. Many of these were minor enough for urgent care centers.

With that said, you can go to an urgent care facility to get treatment for minor to moderate wounds. So long as your injuries don’t bleed non-stop, you can bypass the ER. However, be sure to visit an urgent center within 24 hours, as wounds can get infected quickly.

Urgent care centers can also treat minor musculoskeletal injuries like sprains and strains. If you suspect you have a fracture, you can also get it looked at and treated at an urgent care facility. They can take an x-ray of your injury to confirm if you need advanced fracture treatment.

Get Prompt Treatment for Whatever Is Ailing You

There you have it, the ultimate guide on when it’s best to go for urgent care vs. emergency room services. Just keep in mind that urgent care is for any health concern that needs treatment within 24 hours. If it’s serious enough that it needs treatment now, please go to an emergency room.

The most important thing is never to delay getting medical help when the need arises. Otherwise, your health can go from bad to worse, causing your medical bills to pile up.

Looking for other health and lifestyle tips and tricks? Then check out our other categories for more guides like this!