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Urgent care vs. emergency room: Do you know where to go?

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When you’re in pain and need to see a doctor quickly, you don’t want to have to think about where to go. But it’s not always clear: urgent care or emergency department?

In general, an emergency department is intended to treat conditions that require immediate medical attention as well as life-threatening illnesses.

An urgent care clinic is for conditions that are not life-threatening but still should be treated the same day. If you can’t get a same-day appointment with your primary care doctor, an urgent care is a good secondary option.

Because an emergency department handles more serious injuries and conditions, it can handle things urgent care isn’t designed to treat, such as setting bones, sedation, intubation and resuscitation. So if in doubt, head to your nearest emergency department.

Still not sure where to go? Here are some scenarios to help you decide.

Test your knowledge

1. Urination has become painful, and you think you may have a urinary tract or bladder infection. Where should you go?

Answer: Urgent care. Though painful, a urinary tract infection isn’t life-threatening and is something a primary care doctor would treat.

2. A rash has appeared on your child’s skin, paired with a fever.

Where should you go?

Answer: Emergency department. It may be a relatively harmless rash, but it could also be something more serious, such as meningococcal disease, in which case early diagnosis and treatment are vital to avoid long-term problems.

3. Your heart is suddenly racing, you’re short of breath and feeling dizzy for no obvious reason. Where should you go?

Answer: Emergency department. Any sort of breathing issue or chest pain should always prompt you to head straight to the emergency room, or call an ambulance if necessary.

4. You have a severe sore throat and worry it may be strep. Where should you go?

Answer: Urgent care, where a doctor can help diagnose you. Strep throat isn’t life-threatening, but you may wish to be prescribed antibiotics.

5. You’ve discovered your child may have ingested hand sanitizer, over-the-counter pain medication, cleaning solution or liquid nicotine for e-cigarettes. Where you go?

Answer: Emergency department. Some substances may be more damaging than others, but an emergency department can help in all cases.

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