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ER or Urgent Care – which makes sense for what emergency

It has happened to all of us – an illness, an injury or you wake up in the middle of the night with intense abdominal pain. When something like this occurs, we’re often unsure about where to go for medical care, especially if the symptoms seem severe and our regular doctor’s office is closed.

While the answer is not always simple, knowing the difference between urgent care and emergency care and where to seek treatment could save your life in a medical emergency and, sometimes, unnecessary expense.

The differences between urgent care and the emergency room

Urgent care clinics help fill a gap when you become sick or injured, but your regular doctor is not available and you can’t wait for an appointment.

If you’re sudden illness or injury is something your primary care doctor would take care of, then an urgent care setting probably makes more sense than the emergency room.

Unlike urgent care centers, hospital ER’s are equipped and staffed for even the most complex or critical needs, including life- and limb-threatening situations ranging from heart attack and stroke to traumatic injuries following a car accident.

When to go to the ER

There are a number of medical conditions that are considered emergencies because they can require rapid or advanced treatments (such as surgery) that are only available in a hospital setting. Symptoms that are best evaluated in an emergency room include:

  • Persistent chest pain, especially if it radiates to your arm or jaw or is accompanied by sweating, vomiting or shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Any severe pain, particularly in the abdomen or starting halfway down the back
  • Sudden clumsiness, loss of balance or fainting
  • Sudden difficulty speaking, or trouble understanding speech
  • Altered mental status or confusion, including suicidal thoughts
  • Sudden weakness or paralysis, especially on one side of the face or body
  • Severe heart palpitations
  • Sudden, severe headache
  • Sudden testicular pain and swelling
  • Newborn baby with a fever (a baby less than three months old with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher needs to be seen right away)
  • Falls that cause injury or occur while taking blood thinning medications
  • Sudden vision changes, including blurred or double vision and full or partial vision loss
  • Broken bones or dislocated joints
  • Deep cuts that require stitches — especially on the face — or a large open wound that won’t stop bleeding
  • Head or eye injuries
  • Serious burns
  • Seizures without a previous diagnosis of epilepsy

When to call 911

Even if it is clear that you or your loved one needs emergency care, you may be unsure whether to drive yourself to an emergency room or call 911.

You should never drive yourself if you are having severe chest pain or severe bleeding, if you feel like you might faint, or if your vision is impaired. When in doubt, please call 911 — what matters most is that you get to the emergency room quickly and safely.

For certain medical emergencies such as a heart attack or stroke, calling 911 for an ambulance is always the right decision. This is because paramedics often can begin delivering life-saving treatment on the way to the hospital.

 

Urgent care is not emergency care

Urgent care centers are same-day clinics that can handle a variety of medical problems that need to be treated right away, but are not considered true emergencies. Symptoms that can be evaluated and treated at an urgent care clinic include:

  • Fever without rash
  • Rash without a fever
  • Ear pain
  • Sore throat
  • Vomiting
  • Minor trauma such as a common sprain or shallow cut

If your symptoms come on gradually or you already know the diagnosis — for example, you have repeat urinary tract infections, or you recognize when your child has come down with an ear infection — it’s worth calling your primary care doctor’s office to see if you can get a same-day appointment. After all, your primary care doctor knows your health history, including what treatments have worked best in the past and whether you have other medical conditions that need to be taken into consideration.

However, while urgent care clinics are not a substitute for your primary care physician, they are a great resource when you need care but can’t get in with your doctor.