When Do You Need the ER?

Here are three health scenarios that many adults face:

  • You feel queasy, and you think your temperature is rising.
  • You touch a hot pan, and your hand is red and stinging.
  • You get stung by a bee, and you break out in itchy, red hives.

Which of these warrants a trip to the emergency room for immediate medical attention?

The answer is: probably none of them. The ER is intended to assist individuals in time-sensitive, life-or-death health crises. In these situations, not only will doctors hardly be able to relieve your mild discomfort, but you will most likely take their attention away from cases that truly need their help. Plus, the emergency room can be exceedingly expensive, and you should avoid wasting your time and money on health issues that will likely resolve themselves in a few hours or days.

While this guide is by no means of diagnosis or treatment, it is meant to help you better determine when you need the emergency room, an urgent care facility, or a regular-old doctor’s office.

Urgent Care vs. Emergency Room

If you think you need the emergency room, you might actually need an urgent care facility, instead. Both places provide medical attention to patients who are concerned about an immediate condition that should be addressed quickly. However, there are differences in the level of care each place can provide; therefore, there is an important divergence in urgent care vs. emergency room health issues.

First, you should understand what an urgent care facility is. Unlike an emergency room, which is connected to a hospital and can offer unparalleled medical services, an urgent care center contains fundamental diagnostic equipment, like X-ray machines, and exam rooms. Typically, an urgent care facility is directed by one or two physicians, while nurses and physician assistants perform the bulk of the treatment. In the United States, there are local laws regulating urgent care clinics to ensure they provide essential value to patients.

If you are experiencing a health event that seems pressing but is not necessarily life-threatening — like a fever, a burn, or a reaction to a bee sting — you should consider visiting urgent care. Other examples of urgent care–worthy medical issues include:

  • Mild to moderate breathing difficulty
  • Eye irritation
  • Minor broken bones, such as fractures in fingers or toes
  • Sprains or strains
  • Severe cold symptoms, such as a painful sore throat or a cough
  • Skin rashes or infections, including mild animal bites

In all of those situations, it might be imperative that you seek treatment within 24 hours, but failing to obtain immediate medical attention won’t jeopardize your life. In some cases, urgent care physicians will advise you to visit an emergency room instead, perhaps because your condition is more serious than you believed or because they lack the resources to appropriately address your issue.

Examples of ER-Worthy Symptoms

If you aren’t sure of the line between urgent and emergency medical issues, you aren’t alone. If you recognize any of your symptoms on this list, you should call 911 or visit an emergency room — NOT an urgent care — immediately:

  • Choking. You can recognize choking by a lack of breathing and sound.
  • Extreme difficulty breathing. This may include stopped breathing for unknown reasons.
  • Passing out, fainting, or sudden weakness. Sometimes, this results in head injury, and often, it requires extensive diagnostics to ascertain the cause.
  • Severe burn. If the skin is white or black and sloughing off, the burn is incredibly serious.
  • Coughing or throwing up blood. This indicates that there is a tear in your throat or lungs.
  • Deep wound or heavy bleeding. If you can see bone or bleeding does not stop after five minutes with pressure, you need assistance.
  • Pain in the arm or jaw. These are symptoms of a heart attack, which must be addressed immediately.
  • Severe pain anywhere on the body. Pain is the body’s way of telling you that something is seriously wrong.
  • High fever with a headache and stiff neck. These are symptoms of meningitis, which also requires swift action.
  • Inhaled smoke or fumes or ingested poison. You might also contact the poison control center in your area.
  • Excessive purging. Vomiting or loose stools that do not stop warrants immediate medical attention.
  • Seizures. Like passing out or fainting, seizures are rare and serious medical events that require a hospital’s resources.

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