Whenever an illness or injury occurs, you need to decide how serious it is and how soon to get medical care. This will help you choose whether it is best to:
- Call your health care provider
- Go to an urgent care clinic
- Go to an emergency department right away
It pays to think about the right place to go. Treatment in an emergency department can cost 2 to 3 times more than the same care in your provider's office. In addition, your health insurance may require you to pay a higher copayment for care in an emergency department. Think about this and the other issues listed below when deciding.
Signs of an Emergency
How quickly do you need care? If a person or unborn baby could die or be permanently disabled, it is an emergency.
Call 911 or the local emergency number to have the emergency team come to you right away if you cannot wait, such as for:
- Stopped breathing
- Head injury with passing out, fainting, or confusion
- Injury to neck or spine, particularly if there is loss of feeling or inability to move
- Electric shock or lightning strike
- Severe burn
- Severe chest pain or pressure
- Seizure that lasted more than 1 minute or from which the person does not rapidly awaken
Go to an emergency department or call 911 or the local emergency number for help for problems such as:
- Trouble breathing
- Passing out, fainting
- Pain in the arm or jaw
- Unusual or bad headache, particularly if it started suddenly
- Suddenly not able to speak, see, walk, or move
- Suddenly weak or drooping on one side of the body
- Dizziness or weakness that does not go away
- Inhaled smoke or poisonous fumes
- Sudden confusion
- Heavy bleeding
- Possible broken bone, loss of movement, particularly if the bone is pushing through the skin
- Deep wound
- Serious burn
- Coughing or throwing up blood
- Severe pain anywhere on the body
- Severe allergic reaction with trouble breathing, swelling, hives
- High fever with headache and stiff neck
- High fever that does not get better with medicine
- Throwing up or loose stools that does not stop
- Poisoning or overdose of drug or alcohol
If you are thinking about hurting yourself or others, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org. You can also call 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK). The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline provides free and confidential support 24/7, anytime day or night.
You can also call 911 or the local emergency number or go to the hospital emergency room. DO NOT delay.
If someone you know has attempted suicide, call 911 or the local emergency number right away. DO NOT leave the person alone, even after you have called for help.
When to go to an Urgent Care Clinic
When you have a problem, do not wait too long to get medical care. If your problem is not life threatening or risking disability, but you are concerned and you cannot see your provider soon enough, go to an urgent care clinic.
The kinds of problems an urgent care clinic can deal with include:
- Common mild illnesses, such as colds, the flu, earaches, sore throats, migraines, low-grade fevers, and limited rashes
- Minor injuries, such as sprains, back pain, minor cuts and burns, minor broken bones, or minor eye injuries
If you are not Sure, Talk to Someone
If you are not sure what to do, and you don't have one of the serious conditions listed above, call your provider. If the office is not open, your phone call may be forwarded to someone. Describe your symptoms to the provider who answers your call, and find out what you should do.
Your provider or health insurance company may also offer a nurse telephone advice hotline. Call this number and tell the nurse your symptoms for advice on what to do.
Before you have a medical problem, learn what your choices are. Check the website of your health insurance company. Put these telephone numbers in the memory of your phone:
- Your provider
- The closest emergency department
- Nurse telephone advice line
- Urgent care clinic
- Walk-in clinic
American Academy of Urgent Care Medicine website. What is urgent care medicine. aaucm.org/what-is-urgent-care-medicine/. Accessed July 25, 2022.
American College of Emergency Physicians website. Emergency care, urgent care - what's the difference? www.acep.org/globalassets/sites/acep/media/advocacy/value-of-em/urgent-emergent-care.pdf. Updated April 2007. Accessed July 25, 2022.
Findlay S. When you should go to an urgent care or walk-in health clinic: knowing your options in advance can help you get the right care and save money. www.consumerreports.org/health-clinics/urgent-care-or-walk-in-health-clinic. Updated May 4, 2018. Accessed July 25, 2022.
Review Date 7/25/2022
Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.