When to Go to the ER vs Urgent Care vs Primary Care 

When you are sick or injured, you want to get relief quickly. But when should you go to the emergency room (ER)? And when should you visit urgent care or make an appointment with your primary care doctor?

Let our guide help you decide.

PRIMARY CARE – For non-urgent conditions, start with your primary care provider (PCP).

URGENT CARE – Can't get in to see your PCP, but it's not a life-threatening condition? Anyone 12 months or older can go to urgent care. Find an urgent care location.

EMERGENCY ROOM – Chest pain, acute onset illness or severe injuries need more care than your PCP or an urgent care center can offer. This is when you should go to the emergency room. Find an emergency room.

Learn More: What to Expect at the ER

PEDIATRIC CARE - If your baby or child is suffering a life-threatening condition, call 911 or go to an emergency room immediately.

Learn more: Should I take my child to the emergency room?

When in doubt, call 911.

Reason for Visit Where to Go
Abdominal pain (severe) ER
Allergic reaction (minor) URGENT
Anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction) ER
Animal or insect bite URGENT
Breathing difficulty (serious) ER
Broken bone(s) URGENT or ER
Burns (severe) ER
Burns (minor) URGENT
Cold and flu symptoms
(fever, sore throat)

Cuts requiring stitches

Diabetic emergency ER
Eye infections (pink eye) PRIMARY or URGENT
Eye or head injuries URGENT or ER
Heart attack symptoms or severe chest pain ER
High blood pressure PRIMARY or URGENT
Immunizations, vaccines* PRIMARY or URGENT
Mental health crisis, suicide attempt ER
Overdose or poisoning ER
Rash or poison ivy PRIMARY or URGENT
Routine and preventive care PRIMARY
Sexual assault ER
Sprains and strains, lower back pain PRIMARY or URGENT
Stroke symptoms ER

How to Know If It's an Emergency

Go to the emergency room for any life-or-death emergency or when you need immediate medical attention and cannot go to an urgent care. The following are some examples of situations that require emergency care.


This life-threatening allergic reaction is often in response to food, insect stings, medications, latex or other allergens. Symptoms include (but are not limited to):

  • Trouble breathing
  • Tightness in the throat
  • Hives or swelling
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Vomiting

Even if you have already taken epinephrine (used an EpiPen), you should seek emergency care.

Diabetic Emergency

Both blood sugar that is too high or too low can cause a diabetic emergency. Patients — with guidance and education from their PCP or endocrinologist — can usually treat most of the highs and lows of diabetes.

But when the patient cannot manage dangerously high or low blood sugars, emergency care is needed. Signs of a diabetic emergency may include:

  • Unconsciousness, drowsiness, confusion or difficulty staying awake may be signs of either high or low blood sugar.
  • Jitteriness or sweating can be signs of low blood sugar.
  • Blood sugar readings are below 60 g/dL or where the meter just registers as "HI".
  • The person is having persistent vomiting with the inability to tolerate any liquids or food.

Heart Attack Symptoms

  • A heart attack may feel like uncomfortable pressure, tightness, squeezing discomfort in the chest, neck, shoulders, arms or back.
  • Cold sweats, nausea or shortness of breath can also be signs of a heart attack even without chest pain or pressure.
  • Patients with a heart attack can also describe their symptoms as burning or "indigestion."

Mental Health Crisis or Feeling Suicidal

If you or someone you know is having a mental health emergency, the emergency room is a safe place to seek help. Thoughts or talk of suicide, other types of self-harm or harm to others are clear red flags that immediate help is needed.

Other symptoms that may lead to injury or harm, such as hallucinations, delusions, severe obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) symptoms and mania, can be addressed in the ER.

Sexual Assault

It is critical to seek medical attention as soon as possible after a sexual assault.

The emergency room can offer physical care as well as potential evidence collection. It is also a safe space to determine next steps. Sexual assault survivors may want the hospital to contact the police or arrange for safe housing. If you have been sexually assaulted, do not delay seeking professional care.

Stroke Symptoms

Use the acronym BE FAST to recognize stroke symptoms.

  • Balance – Trouble walking, loss of coordination, dizziness
  • Eyes – Loss of vision, double vision, eyes fixed to one side of the body
  • Face – Asymmetry, drooping, twisting
  • Arm – Weakness or inability to hold one's arm up
  • Speech – Slurred speech, confusion, not being able to put words together
  • Time – The need to act immediately is very importance

Suspected Overdose or Poisoning

An overdose can range from mild to life-threatening. Anyone with a suspected overdose of any substance, including illegal drugs, prescription medicine and alcohol, should be evaluated by a doctor immediately. Symptoms may include:

  • Breathing problems
  • Delusions or hallucinations
  • Seizures or tremors
  • Unconsciousness
  • Vomiting

If you are seeking medical attention for a suspected overdose or poisoning try to determine what the person took. You may need to collect containers, substances or equipment.

*Call your primary care or urgent care location to confirm specific vaccine availability.