Urgent vs. Emergency… How to Choose
May 12, 2023
Reviewed by: Katie Sanne, FNP-C
A lot can go wrong in modern life. Here at Texas MedClinic, we get a lot of phone calls from people who’ve had a mishap and ask “Can you help, or should I go to the ER?” It’s a good idea to know the type of situation that calls for a visit to the emergency room, and when urgent care is a better bet – before you need to make the decision in a moment of panic.
Urgent vs. Emergency
What’s the difference between “urgent” and “emergency” anyway? It can all feel like an “I need medical help right now,” situation. But medically speaking, an emergency is life-threatening or one that could leave you permanently disabled. An urgent situation is one that might be painful or disruptive, but not a threat to your life.
It used to be that your primary care provider could take care of most of your urgent care needs. You could just walk in. These days, it could take weeks to get an appointment, and you’ll probably have to take time off work or school. Urgent care clinics get you in sooner, even in the evening or on the weekend, so that you can feel better.
Here are some scenarios to illustrate the differences:
A Christmas Story: Head to the ER
It’s May and you’re taking your Christmas lights down. (We’re not judging.) You’re trying to reach that last light at the peak of the roof, and you lean way over, lose your balance and fall from the ladder. You hear a crack… and your arm doesn’t look right. For goodness sake: go to the ER!
Now let’s say you land just right and don’t have a scratch on you. You haven’t hit your head or twisted an ankle or anything! (Maybe you landed on a trampoline. Or you’re just an extraordinarily lucky person.) But your partner sees this happen, clutches their chest and passes out. Now you’re calling 9-1-1. Anything heart-related can be life-threatening and you should go the ER or call an ambulance.
But let’s say you fell on a soft bush and your ankle is swollen and painful, and you have a few scratches from the bush. Head to a Texas MedClinic Urgent Care near you. We can see you quickly, assess the situation and provide treatment – we even have on-site imaging capabilities so we know exactly what’s going on.
Guacamole: an Urgent Care moment
POV: You’re cutting an avocado, cupping it in your hand while you slice it JUST like the pro you watched online, when it all goes wrong and argh! You’ve sliced right through the skin of the avocado… and your skin, too. You don’t even want to look at your hand, but when you do, you see it’s going to need more than an adhesive bandage. This is what we call an ‘urgent care moment’. That “Should I go?” moment when you don’t really want to walk away from the guacamole, but you’re starting to think you might just have to. But where to go — urgent care or the ER?
First, we’re sorry you cut yourself. (Don’t ever hold fruit in your hand while you cut, please!) Next: rinse the cut, use a clean cloth to apply pressure and hold that cut above your head. If it doesn’t stop bleeding, come see us. If it stops bleeding, but you’re not sure how to bandage it, or it seems deep or jagged, come see us – you may need stitches. If it stops bleeding and was just a minor cut, you’re set. Eat that guacamole.
Bad Take-Out: Stick it Out
And here’s an example of toughing it out: You order take-out and as soon as you finish your pork, your stomach is roiling. You have an uncomfortable night of gastro issues but by the next morning, you start to feel better, and you’ve been able to stay hydrated. In this situation, you can probably wait to see how you’re feeling. If you continue to improve, you’re past needing a clinic.
We hope this helps clear up what mishaps are urgent, and which are emergencies. Remember: if it’s life-threatening, go to the ER. If not, come see the expert, kind and responsive staff at Texas MedClinic Urgent Care. Find the closest location here. In the meantime, learn how to safely slice an avocado here, use a ladder here and watch for food poisoning here.
Disclaimer: If you are in a situation that might be life-threatening, go straight to the emergency room or call 911. Situations like this include: Shortness of breath or breathing problems. Seizures or ‘blackouts’. Sudden vision problems. Confusion or dizziness. Heavy bleeding. Possible breaks that appear to be deformed or blue, or that include bleeding. Serious burns. The inability to speak or move. Head and neck injuries.