When you have a medical concern, you're often faced with a decision. Is it bad enough to go to the emergency room? Or, can you visit an urgent care center?

Both places treat injuries or illnesses that need medical attention. But the severity of the problems they treat differ. To minimize your wait time, save money and make the most of your visit, it helps to know the differences between the two.

What Is Urgent Care?

Urgent care centers are designed to treat medical concerns that need attention right away but that aren't exactly life-threatening. Many of them also provide routine medical care, such as lab work and vaccinations, Healthline notes.

While some patients use urgent care centers to supplement any care they receive from a primary care physician, some people rely on urgent care facilities because they don't have a primary care provider.

What Is Emergency Care?

Emergency care is medical attention that prevents a person from dying or becoming permanently disabled. It's usually needed when a person develops symptoms or becomes severely injured suddenly and unexpectedly.

Differences Between Urgent Care and Emergency Room

There are notable differences between an urgent care center and the emergency room (ER).

Reason for the Visit

Usually, you should only go to the ER if you have a concern that can't wait for treatment. Medline Plus notes that the following are all good reasons for an ER visit:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Choking
  • Seizures lasting at least three minutes
  • Severe burns
  • Getting struck by lightning
  • Sudden, severe headache
  • Head, neck or spinal injury
  • Broken bones
  • Severe chest pain
  • Deep wound
  • High fever that persists after taking medicine

You can go to an urgent care clinic if you have an injury, such as a cut or sprain. If you're feeling sick and want to get a diagnosis quickly, an urgent care center is the way to go. Some reasons to go to urgent care include:

  • Earache
  • Sprained limb
  • Back pain
  • Animal bite
  • A foreign object stuck in the nose
  • Non-life threatening allergic reaction
  • Sore throat and cough
  • Nausea and vomiting

Opening Hours

Another major difference between the ER and an urgent care center is when they're open. ERs are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can go there morning or night if you have a severe medical issue.

Urgent care centers tend to be open during traditional business hours. Some clinics stay open into the evening, such as until 8 or 9 p.m. A few are open on weekends, too. You can also often make an appointment before you go to an urgent care facility. You can't make an appointment at the ER.


Staffing levels are different at an urgent care clinic compared to an ER. Often, you'll find nurse practitioners, physician assistants and registered nurses working at urgent care centers. Some centers also have physicians on staff, but you're more likely to be seen and treated by a physician's assistant or nurse practitioner.

At an ER, you're likely to be treated by physicians, such as emergency room doctors, and other specialists. Usually, the providers you see at an ER specialize in emergency medicine. Depending on your particular concern, they might have another physician, such as a cardiologist or neurologist, examine you and make a diagnosis.


A visit to the ER can easily cost ten times as much as an urgent care visit. The average ER bill is over $1,000 for people with insurance.

The cost to visit an urgent care center can vary based on the reason and your insurance coverage but is usually around $150.

When to Go to Urgent Care vs. ER

If you're feeling under the weather or have an injury that's bothersome but isn't life-threatening, a trip to an urgent care center is usually appropriate. If you're bleeding extensively, have sudden, severe pain or find it difficult to move, it's time to go to the ER. If the problem is severe enough, you might consider calling 911 or having an ambulance give you a ride.

If you're not sure whether to go to the urgent care center or ER, it can be helpful to start at urgent care or call 911 for guidance. They can let you know if your problem is severe enough to need emergency treatment.