All too often, ill­ness or injury appears out of the blue: You wake up in the mid­dle of the night with intense abdom­i­nal pain. You stum­ble while car­ry­ing gro­ceries up a flight of stairs and can no longer put weight on your swollen ankle. Or your baby spikes a high fever on the weekend.

These sit­u­a­tions are stress­ful and it’s hard to think when you’re under stress. But you need to decide where to go to get med­ical care for your­self or a loved one. Under­stand­ing the lev­els of acute med­ical care before you need it can help you focus and get the appro­pri­ate help quickly.

Urgent care cen­ters and emer­gency rooms are both great options for times when you are unable to see your pri­ma­ry care physi­cian (PCP). The rea­sons for choos­ing these facil­i­ties can be because the injury or sick­ness has occurred out­side nor­mal office hours for your doc­tor or that you are out of town when an emer­gency hits. As you know, the first choice for non-life or limb-threat­en­ing con­di­tions should be your reg­u­lar doctor—they will have your med­ical his­to­ry on file and your med­ica­tion list at the ready. When this is not an option, you will need to make the choice on what lev­el of care you need.

Urgent Care Centers

Urgent care cen­ters fill the gap between when you are sick or minor­ly injured but can­not see your PCP and when you can’t wait for an appoint­ment. Most urgent care loca­tions are staffed by doc­tors or physician’s assis­tants. These cen­ters can get you in and out quick­ly and some even take appoint­ments. Since you will not see your PCP at these clin­ics, it’s always best to bring a copy of all the med­ica­tions and dosages of meds you take. If you have a spe­cial con­di­tion, like epilep­sy, make sure you dis­close that to the urgent care provider you see. Most have access to x‑ray machines and basic diag­nos­tic tests. The typ­i­cal range of costs for care at these cen­ters is between $150-$200.

Here are some con­di­tions that typ­i­cal­ly can be seen at urgent care centers:

  • Fevers, flu or cold symptoms
  • Ear infec­tions
  • Bron­chi­tis
  • Small­er cuts that may require stitches
  • Uri­nary tract infections
  • Vom­it­ing or diarrhea
  • Rash­es

Emer­gency Room Care

Hos­pi­tal emer­gency rooms pro­vide care for life and limb-threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tions rang­ing from heart attack and stroke to car acci­dent injuries. Staffed by physi­cians, nurs­es, and spe­cial­ists, emer­gency rooms have access to high­ly knowl­edge­able and diverse med­ical teams.  In emer­gency rooms, care is giv­en to the most seri­ous injury/illness first—not on a first-come, first-served basis. Because of this, wait times in emer­gency rooms are wide­ly var­ied and may be into a sev­er­al hours-long wait. Again, it is wise to bring a list of any med­ica­tions, both pre­scribed and over-the-counter, with you when seek­ing care since the ER will not have this infor­ma­tion from your PCP. The aver­age cost of an emer­gency room vis­it costs $2,200 accord­ing to UnitedHealthcare.

Symp­toms that are best eval­u­at­ed in an emer­gency room include:

  • Chest pain or dif­fi­cul­ty breathing
  • Weakness/numbness on one side
  • Seri­ous burns
  • Head or eye injury
  • Concussion/confusion
  • Bro­ken bones and dis­lo­cat­ed joints
  • Seizures
  • Severe cuts that may require stitches
  • Preg­nan­cy Complications
  • Any con­di­tion that you think may need surgery or a stay in the hospital

When faced with the deci­sion to vis­it an urgent care cen­ter or emer­gency room, you have to first eval­u­ate your symp­toms. Once you have done this, ask your­self this ques­tion, “Does this con­di­tion have the pos­si­bil­i­ty of per­ma­nent­ly impair­ing or endan­ger­ing your life?” If the answer is “yes,” then you have an emer­gency and should pro­ceed to the near­est hos­pi­tal ER. If the answer is “no,” then head over to your local urgent care cen­ter. You will save your­self time and mon­ey by mak­ing a good choice on your care.