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Urgent or emergency care?

Learn which is the best place to take your child for the treatment of certain illnesses and conditions.

As a parent, you have a pretty good idea when your child has an illness or injury that needs more than a hug and an over-the-counter medication.

When you can’t see your pediatrician—maybe it’s the weekend or after office hours—you may think your only option for help is a hospital emergency department.

That is the best place to take your child if he or she is truly having a medical emergency. However, for nonemergency situations you do have another choice: an urgent care center. You may be able to see a doctor more quickly—and for less money—at an urgent care center than at a hospital.

So how do you know which is the best place to take your child?

Consider urgent care for things such as:
  • A cold or cough that doesn’t get better in several days or a cold that gets worse and is accompanied by a fever.
  • A minor cut that might need stitches.
  • A rash, especially with fever.
  • A bout of vomiting and diarrhea that lasts for more than a few hours.
  • A severe sore throat or a problem swallowing.
  • A minor bone fracture.
  • An insect or animal bite.

But you’ll want to call 911 or go to the emergency department if your child has signs of a medical emergency. Those include:
  • Any significant change in behavior, such as being confused, delirious or excessively sleepy or becoming increasingly less responsive or alert.
  • A severe headache or vomiting, especially after a head injury.
  • Uncontrolled bleeding.
  • Problems breathing.
  • Increasing pain or severe, persistent pain.
  • Severe or persistent diarrhea.

You should also get emergency help if your child is unconscious.

Good things to know

Urgent care centers don’t require an appointment. Most have evening and some weekend hours, but they aren’t open 24 hours a day. Many of them offer services like x-rays, lab tests and medications.

Hospital emergency departments are open 24/7. They are staffed and equipped to handle any medical emergency.

Sources: American Academy of Pediatrics; American College of Emergency Physicians; National Association for Ambulatory Care
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