Urgent Care Center vs Emergency Room: Which is the Right Choice?

It is 8pm, and you notice that your child feels warm. You measure their temperature and he or she has a fever of 103 degrees Fahrenheit, is now complaining of a sore throat and to top it all off, just had an episode of vomiting. Your pediatrician’s office is closed, and you are now faced with the decision of taking them to the emergency room or to your local pediatric urgent care center. 

As a parent of a sick child, the last thing on your mind is trying to figure out which type of care facility is appropriate. Most of the time, it is not as easy as black and white, which leaves you at a crossroad trying to decide which option is best. This advice will hopefully take away some of the guess work for you in making the right choice. Outlined below are some of the common illnesses that are easily managed in an urgent care setting along with six scenarios that should prompt you to seek care in the emergency room. 


First, let’s talk about urgent care.

An urgent care center is designed to be a bridge to the emergency room acting as a mid-level care facility similar to your pediatrician’s office. These clinics are readily available to manage various simple complaints that you would typically handle in your pediatrician’s office if they were open or available. 

Some common symptoms that are appropriate for an urgent care clinic include, but are not limited to:

  • Common Cold Symptoms (Cough, Congestion, Runny Nose, Sore Throat)
  • Fever 
  • Rash
  • Ear Ache
  • Sore Throat
  • Eye Discharge
  • Simple Cuts, Abrasions, Contusions, Sprains, Fractures 
  • Minor Head Injuries
  • Insect Bites
  • Mild Abdominal Pain
  • Vomiting and Diarrhea

In general, a good rule of thumb is if the complaint is something you would typically go to your pediatrician for, then likely it can be managed at an urgent care center.


Head straight to the emergency room if…

1. Your child is 2 months old or less with a fever. Newborns do not localize infection well which can cause them to become very sick, very quickly.

2. Your child is unresponsive, has changes in mental status, or is lethargic. Any unresponsive child needs medical attention immediately. Changes in mental status are very concerning and are usually a sign of serious infection, brain and/or neurological abnormalities, or toxic ingestion to name a few possibilities.

3. Your child has a severe head injury. Some signs of a severe head injury include:

  • Unresponsiveness
  • Excessive Sleepiness/Lethargy
  • Loss of Consciousness
  • Changes in Mental Status 
  • Severe Headaches
  • Changes in Walking or Decrease Function of the Limbs
  • Seizure Activity
  • Persistent Vomiting
  • Bleeding from the Ears
  • Excess Clear Fluid coming from the Nose

4. Your child has large and/or deep cuts, severe burns or open fractures, such as bones sticking out through the skin.

5. Your child has difficulty breathing and/or respiratory distress.

6. Your child has moderate or severe dehydration. Typically, mild episodes of vomiting and diarrhea are easily managed at an urgent care center as long as the child is not exhibiting signs of severe dehydration. If your child is not drinking at all, has persistent vomiting, has gone more than six to eight hours between episodes of urination or has not urinated at all in a day’s time, it is likely your child is significantly dehydrated and needs IV fluids. This can be managed in the emergency room. 


Dr. Sabrina Clark’s latest Q&A with The Mother of All Baby Showers can answer your early stages of childhood questions: https://www.facebook.com/TheMOABS/videos/1988466734496943/?hc_ref=ARRy9in1vLYS7Kkp9Hh8nAkQNSnsGonCFoN_2R-E9nF03vsOQ2tmcLGCJ2vnPF1EBgc


In general, if there is ever a question as to which care setting to choose, the best person to ask and the first place you should seek advice is your pediatrician. Call their office or nurse hotline to get clarification. They should be able to properly direct you to the appropriate care facility based on your concerns. 

Written by Dr. Sabrina Clark, Pediatrician at NightLight Pediatric Urgent Care

For more resources, check out NightLightPediatrics.com.

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august, 2021