When to Seek Urgent Care, the Nearest ER, or Dial 911
“Should I go to the ER or an urgent care facility?” This is one of those questions you want an answer to ahead of time.
At some point in life, virtually everyone will experience that moment of anxiety when you have to make a time-critical decision because you or someone you love has suddenly become ill or been injured. Understanding the difference between urgent and emergency care services will help you choose the right services for the situation to reduce anxiety and take action faster.
If it looks life-threatening, call 911 immediately
Any situation involving loss of consciousness or breath, difficulty breathing, severe injury, heavy blood loss, inability to move, or prolonged loss of fluids requires action without hesitation. Call 911 immediately. Do not attempt to drive or move a severely ill or injured person. Ambulance emergency medical teams are trained and equipped to safely transport and perform lifesaving aid on the way to the hospital. You are not. 911 operators will assist you in rendering first aid until help arrives.
Potentially life-threatening illness or injury includes:
- Stroke – sudden severe headache with numbness or weakness on one side of the face or body, slurred speech, confusion, dizziness or change in vision.
- Heart attack – chest pain, labored or stopped breathing, or loss of consciousness. Women may also experience back pain, fatigue and nausea.
- Severe injuries – to the head, neck or spine; broken bones (especially if visible through the skin); or loss of feeling or movement.
- Second or third-degree burns to more than 10 percent of the body – immediate reddening, blistering or deep damage to the skin caused by fire, appliances, hot liquid or household chemicals.
- Drowning, choking, electric shock, lightning strike, seizures, or pedestrian accidents.
When to use an urgent care clinic
Walk-in urgent care clinics handle minor emergencies and provide same-day treatment for common illnesses when your primary care physician is not available. Treatment is provided by a family medicine or emergency-trained physician, or a physician assistant or nurse practitioner under the doctor’s supervision. Clinics offer convenient locations with diagnostic X-ray and lab, as well as extended and weekend hours to accommodate non-life-threatening aches and pains.
Go to the urgent care clinic as a lower-cost alternative to hospital ERs when you need same-day treatment for:
- Cold, flu or common illness – sore throat, earache, congestion, cough, asthma, allergies, low-grade fever, nausea, diarrhea, headache or migraines, or urinary tract infections.
- Bites, stings, poison ivy – itch, pain or localized rash or hives.
- Minor injuries – pain and swelling from strains, sprains or simple bone or joint injury.
- Minor cuts and scrapes – bleeding is controlled after applying pressure, and wounds only need a stitch or two.
When to head to the nearest ER
Go to the nearest hospital emergency room when the situation does not require a 911 call, but is more severe than the examples listed for urgent care. Emergency rooms are staffed with specially trained emergency physicians, registered nurses and technicians. They are equipped with sophisticated diagnostic technologies such as digital X-ray, ultrasound, CT scanner, MRI and on-site labs. Some are designated stroke centers and heart centers, providing the latest lifesaving treatments.
Go to your nearest ER in cases of:
- Severe pain
- Suspected heart attack or stroke
- Trouble breathing, severe allergic reactions or asthma
- Deep wounds with heavy bleeding
- Broken bones
- Severe burns
- Head injury, concussion
- Severe headache, dizziness, weakness, confusion, seizures or changes in vision
- High fever, stiff neck, uncontrolled nausea or diarrhea, dehydration
- Coughing or throwing up blood or blood in stool
- Suspected poisoning or alcohol or drug overdose
- Suicidal thoughts
If you are unsure about the severity of an injury or illness, it is always better to err on the side of caution and call 911 or come to the ER. You never know if a situation will rapidly turn critical.
Keep emergency numbers posted in close reach and in your cell phone. Also, before an emergency happens, locate and know the shortest route to the emergency room nearest you.
Watch a short video about when to choose an ER over urgent care.
There are also six conveniently located Medical City Children’s Pediatric Urgent Care locations in Dallas, Allen, Flower Mound, Frisco, McKinney and Plano.