What’s the difference between the ER and urgent care?

It’s Saturday, and the cold you’ve been nursing for the past few days seems to be getting worse. You’ve vomited once and have a fever. Should you head to a hospital emergency room or an urgent care clinic?

If you’ve ever wondered whether to go to an ER or an urgent care clinic, you’re not alone. As physicians, we’re often asked by family, friends and patients if their symptoms warrant an ER visit, a trip to an urgent care clinic, a call to their primary care doctor or simply management at home.

If you are experiencing mild symptoms, such as aches and pains, a mild cough, etc., that could be caused by the flu, COVID-19, RSV or hundreds of other viruses, consider “doing what your mom used to tell you” — rest, drink plenty of fluids, take over-the-counter medications like Tylenol, if needed, and monitor your symptoms.

If your symptoms don’t improve over time, or if they worsen, calling your primary care physician may be beneficial. Many primary care physicians are now offering virtual visits and can assess patients by a phone or video call fairly quickly.

However, if your symptoms are more severe and can’t wait for an appointment with your doctor, consider your other options for care.

Urgent Care
Unless a condition is life-threatening, a trip to urgent care is generally a better use of a patient’s time and resources to treat injuries, fevers, infections and other ailments. Urgent care clinics often have far shorter wait times than the ER and cost less than a traditional hospital emergency room visit. And many, like our UChicago Medicine Dearborn Station and UChicago Medicine Medical Group – Homewood urgent care centers, offer convenient benefits such as walk-in appointments and on-site x-ray.

Our clinics are staffed by experienced physicians who treat both adult and pediatric patients and are available 7 days a week, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. during weekdays and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends and holidays. An additional urgent care clinic is coming soon at our River East location.

If necessary, urgent care providers can also connect you with a higher level of care.

Emergency Room
You should call 911 or come right to the emergency room if you’re systemically sick. That’s when an illness affects your entire body, and you have severe pain or sudden onset of severe symptoms, a fever that won’t break, or “something doesn’t work,” like you’re unable to move an arm or leg or breathe normally. This includes:

If a person has a severe injury or allergic reaction.
If they pass out or experience any signs of a possible stroke or signs of a heart attack.
While you or the victim may have a hospital of choice, an emergency may warrant going to the nearest emergency location for immediate treatment. With their connection to hospitals for seamless admittance and advanced level of technology, ERs are the best place for actual emergencies.