Urgent Care vs Emergency Room: Understanding the Differences

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.

When to Consider Home Remedies

If you are experiencing mild symptoms, such as mild 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: A Convenient and Cost-Effective Option

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 centers 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, UChicago Medicine Medical Group – Homewood, and UChicago Medicine River East urgent care centers, offer convenient benefits such as walk-in appointments and on-site x-ray.

Common reasons to visit an urgent care center include:

  • Experiencing mild to moderate cold symptoms and unsure whether it is flu, COVID-19, or RSV.
  • Having a sore throat and being concerned it is viral or strep throat.
  • Developing infections like ear infections or pneumonia, which may require antibiotics.

Our urgent care clinics have board-certified physicians on staff who can test for and treat these conditions and much more. We treat both adult and pediatric patients and are available seven 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. If necessary, urgent care providers can also connect you with a higher level of care.

Emergency Room: Seeking Immediate Attention for Serious Conditions

You should call 911 or come directly 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 being unable to move an arm or leg or breathe normally. This includes:

  • Severe injuries or allergic reactions.
  • Loss of consciousness or signs of a possible stroke or 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.

Should you call 911 or go to the hospital emergency room?

The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) has useful guidance on when to call 911, but common reasons include:

  • The condition is life-threatening and requires attention as soon as possible.
  • You are unable to move yourself or the victim without causing harm or further damage.
  • You are physically or emotionally unable to drive or be transported to a hospital ER.

Urgent Aid for Lower-Level Emergencies

If you’re in the Southland, UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial offers an additional option to consider before heading to the ER. In our south suburban urgent aid centers, physicians provide ER-level care for lower-level emergencies – injuries, viruses, and other illnesses – 24 hours a day, every day in an urgent care-like setting.

If a stable patient needs higher-level imaging such as an ultrasound or CT scan, urgent aids may be a better fit than an urgent care clinic. The cost of an urgent aid visit is the same as the emergency department of Ingalls Memorial for the same level of care. The co-pay for emergency services will apply to your urgent aid visit, which may be higher than the co-pay for services provided by urgent care centers that are not part of a hospital’s emergency department.


Q: Can I use urgent care for a severe injury or allergic reaction?

A: No, for severe injuries or allergic reactions, it is best to call 911 or go directly to the emergency room.

Q: Can I go to urgent care for COVID-19 testing?

A: Yes, most urgent care centers offer COVID-19 testing. It’s best to call ahead to confirm their availability.

Q: Do I need an appointment for urgent care?

A: Most urgent care centers offer walk-in appointments, but it’s recommended to call ahead to check wait times and availability.

Q: Can children be treated at urgent care?

A: Yes, urgent care centers typically treat both adult and pediatric patients.


Knowing when to visit urgent care or the emergency room can save you time, money, and unnecessary stress. For mild to moderate symptoms, urgent care is often the most convenient and cost-effective option. However, for severe or life-threatening conditions, calling 911 or going directly to the emergency room is crucial. If you’re unsure, it’s always best to consult with a healthcare professional for guidance.

Instant Global News is committed to providing accurate and up-to-date information to help you make informed decisions about your healthcare options. Remember to prioritize your health and seek medical attention when necessary.