Is It Urgent or an Emergency? How to Know and Where to Go


I was at the urgent-care center because my ears had inexplicably clogged up while enjoying the hotel pool during vacation. But even though my hearing was severely muffled, I could hear the panicked doctor in the next room. He was urgently (pardon the pun) making phone calls to get an elderly patient transferred to the emergency room. This older patient had chosen to head to the urgent-care center when he started having chest pains, and he was having a heart attack. Right at that moment. In the next room.

It’s understandable that he made the wrong choice. After all, for years, we’ve been admonished not to clog up emergency rooms with our pettier aches and pains. And we all fear the length of time an ER visit takes, as long as three hours, according to ProPublica, an investigative reporting organization. Yet knowing the difference between what’s “urgent” and what’s an “emergency” could be a matter of life or death.

Here’s how we short-handed it on a recent episode of The Dr. Oz Show about all the available options. If you cut your finger off, you should head to the emergency room. If you just cut your finger, urgent care should probably do the trick. Or to put another way, if life or limbs are at risk, go to the ER. But if you have a lesser problem that you do want to be seen for, but that isn’t an emergency, maybe one of the many new urgent-care centers will work for you. (If your family doctor’s office is open, the team there might also be able to help you, and often for a lower co-pay.)

The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) is worried that people don’t make the right choice when it comes to where to go for medical help. In a recent press release, the group’s president said, “Many people may feel they are saving time or money by going first to urgent care, but in instances of serious illness, that loss of time can be dangerous. Urgent care centers are great options for common medical problems, but they are not substitutes for emergency care.”

Still worried about wasting the time of an emergency room team? ACEP says these are the symptoms that should send you straight to an emergency room:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.
  • Chest pain or upper abdominal pain or pressure lasting two minutes or more.
  • Fainting, sudden dizziness or weakness.
  • Change in vison.
  • Difficulty speaking.
  • Confusion or changes in mental status, unusual behavior or difficulty walking.
  • Any sudden and severe pain.
  • Severe or persistent vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Coughing or vomiting blood.
  • Suicidal or homicidal thoughts.
  • Unusual abdominal pain.
  • Severe headache or vomiting after a head injury, unconsciousness or uncontrolled bleeding.

As for me, my clogged ears weren’t a sign I was going deaf (despite how your mind can wander to the worst in these situations). The chlorine in the pool had loosened up wax, which then clogged my ear canal. It was urgent to me because I wanted to get back to enjoying my vacation. The urgent-care doc cleaned my ears, and I headed back to the pool.