I spent the recent Fourth of July weekend watching parades, cooking out, and seeing fireworks—and being sick. I started getting a runny nose and a tickle in my throat on the Fourth while I was grilling some burgers and corn, so I chalked it up to summer allergies, or maybe a big whiff of the smoke from the grill.

I felt a bit better that Saturday, but by Sunday, my throat felt like it was on fire, my energy level was in the tank, and my nose was completely blocked.  I was feeling lousy enough to seek medical attention.

If this happened during the work week, I would have called my primary care doctor for an appointment. But since it was a holiday weekend, that wasn’t an option. An emergency room wasn’t a good option either, as I’d have gotten a big bill and waited in a long line behind others with more serious injuries.

Thankfully, I live only a five-minute drive from an urgent care center. In about 30 minutes, I checked in, got examined and diagnosed with strep throat and sinusitis, and went home with a 10-day supply of antibiotics.

I’ve since kicked that infection, and the bill for my treatment wasn’t enough to put me in a state of shock.

When you’re ill or injured, and your primary care doctor’s office is closed or you can’t get an appointment right away, where should you go for care? Knowing where to go is important to getting the right care and saving time and money, not to mention your life or someone else’s.

Here are some guidelines to help you make the right decision.

Call 911 When Lives Depend on It

Forbes Hospital Emergency Entrance, Pittsburgh, PA

If you think that you or someone else is having a heart attack, stroke, extreme injuries, such as from car accidents, or any other life-threatening emergency, call 911! Specifically, these potential symptoms of heart attack and stroke mean you need to call 911 immediately:

  • Heart attack symptoms
    • Chest pain or pressure
    • Sudden dizziness or weakness
    • Racing heart/change in heart rhythm
    • Pain that travels to your arm or jaw
  • Stroke symptoms
    • Vision loss or sudden changes
    • Weakness or paralysis
    • Sudden, severe headache
    • Difficulty speaking
    • Confusion or change in mental state

Paramedics are trained to handle these emergencies and can start treatment on the scene. Don’t take a chance with anything life-threatening.

The ER is Best for Emergencies

You should go to the ER for emergencies like:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Chest pain
  • Head, eye or facial injuries
  • Bleeding that won’t stop
  • Fevers over 105 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Any fever in children under three months
  • Persistent or severe shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Serious burns or cuts
  • Coughing up or vomiting blood
  • Sudden, severe abdominal pain
  • Sudden or complete numbness
  • Blurred vision
  • Pregnancy complications
  • Obvious fractures
  • Poisonings
  • Severe allergic reactions
  • Suicidal or homicidal feelings or a change in mental state

Assessing Signs and Symptoms: When Is Something “Severe”?

When illness strikes suddenly or an accident occurs, it’s natural to panic; we’ve all been there. But panic makes it hard to clearly assess how sick or injured we truly are, and to figure out what to do next or where to go.

What makes a burn or cut “serious”? What constitutes a “severe” allergic reaction? Since ER doctors are experts in making these kinds of assessments day in and day out, we asked Dr. Tom Campbell, Chief of Emergency Medicine at Allegheny Health Network, for guidance:

“Burns that are on the face, hands, or larger than your palm and any cuts that are gaping or will not stop bleeding are more serious,” Dr. Campbell says. “For an allergic reaction, you’ll want to consider a trip to the ER if the tongue or face is swelling or if the patient is having trouble breathing.”

Dr. Campbell says pregnant women should be seen in the emergency room if they’re experiencing cramping, bleeding, or any change in the baby’s movement.

If you have a chronic condition, such as diabetes or asthma, ask your primary care doctor or specialist at your next visit to educate you about which signs or symptoms they feel require a 911 call or visit to the emergency room.

Make sure you share that information with family or close friends who could seek help for you if they notice you having them and you’re unable to take care of yourself.

When in doubt, go to the emergency room!

Urgent Care/Retail Clinics Are Best for Quick, Non-Emergency Treatment

Urgent care centers are most appropriate for injuries and illnesses that are not emergencies, but need quick treatment, like:

  • Strains or sprains
  • Minor cuts and burns
  • Insect bites
  • Rashes
  • Fevers or cold symptoms
  • Upset stomachs, vomiting, diarrhea or dehydration
  • Coughs, colds, sore throats and earaches
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Ear or eye infections/irritations

Urgent care centers are staffed with doctors, nurses and physician assistants and are open evenings and weekends.

Many urgent care centers have on-site EKGs, X-rays, pharmacies and lab equipment.  Some urgent care centers can also provide preventive care like physicals and immunizations.

Choose Retail Clinics for Minor Medical Maladies

Retail clinics are another option for minor medical problems like colds, sore throats, upset stomachs and minor aches and pains. These clinics are found in grocery and drug stores and are usually staffed by nurse practitioners and physician assistants, who can refer you to medical doctors as needed.

Going to an urgent care center or retail clinic instead of the emergency room for non-emergency illnesses and injuries can mean shorter wait times and lower out-of-pocket costs, not to mention getting the right care. That said, Dr. Campbell cautions:

“If there is any doubt, choose a higher level of care. You don’t want to delay treatment for critical issues or those that may worsen over time.”

Use these Options as a Safety Net

Remember that none of these options should be used as a replacement for a relationship with your primary care physician. Your doctor has the most complete picture of your health over time and keeps track of details like which antibiotic worked best last time you had strep throat. If it’s not an emergency situation and your doctor is available, it’s always best to see him or her.

Find Out More

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and the Department of Health and Human Services have more information to help you make the right choice when it comes to emergency and urgent care, including handy Where to Go guides and links to help you find area doctors and hospitals.