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Your questions about urgent care, answered

Urgent care centers are popping up everywhere. How can they treat you, and what are the benefits of going to one? Find out now.

When you get sick or injured, you may need to make a quick decision about where to go for medical help. Your first instinct might be to head to the emergency room (ER) at the nearest hospital. But that may not always be the best choice.

“At the time, a major illness can absolutely feel like life-and-death,” says Noor Ali, M.D., M.P.H., C.P.H. She’s a health care adviser in Tampa, Florida. “But consider first if it really warrants a trip to the ER or if you can seek care at an urgent care facility.”

Urgent care centers are walk-in clinics that can typically treat you without an appointment. And they can handle a wide range of medical emergencies.

Going to an urgent care center instead of an ER may also save you time and money. Plus, there’s a good chance there may be one near you. There are more than 14,000 urgent care centers in the United States, with many more being built every year, according to the Urgent Care Association.

Looking for the individual or family health insurance plan that’s right for you? Explore your coverage options now or contact a licensed agent at 1-844-211-7730.

What’s the difference between an urgent care center and an emergency room?

Emergency rooms are highly specialized medical centers equipped to treat life-threatening emergencies. They’re also usually attached to hospitals, so patients can easily be admitted if they need more care. ERs are typically open 24/7, and you do not need an appointment to visit one.

Urgent care centers are stand-alone facilities that are equipped to treat a wide range of urgent — but not life-threatening — medical issues. Urgent care centers are a great option for things like:

  • Cold and flu symptoms
  • Ear infections
  • Minor burns or cuts that need stitches
  • Urinary tract infections

They do not require an appointment. It’s worth knowing that not all urgent care centers are open 24/7 (some are). But they are usually open on evenings and weekends.

Check your health plan’s provider network to find an urgent care center near you.

When should I call 911 or go to an ER instead of using urgent care?

Of course, some medical issues do warrant a trip to the ER. It’s best to call 911 or head to the nearest ER if you or someone else experiences any of the following:

  • Chest pain or pressure in your chest
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pain in the arm or jaw (this can be a sign of a heart attack)
  • Poisoning or overdose of drugs or alcohol
  • Seizures
  • Serious injuries with heavy bleeding or large open wounds
  • Severe allergic reaction with trouble breathing, swelling and hives
  • Severe burns
  • Severe headache, especially if it started suddenly
  • Signs of a stroke, such as:
    • Confusion or trouble speaking
    • Dizziness, loss of balance or trouble walking
    • Numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg
    • Trouble seeing out of one or both eyes
  • Vomiting or diarrhea that doesn’t stop

What illnesses and injuries can be treated at urgent care centers?

You might be surprised by what you can get treated at an urgent care center. Dr. Ali notes that they are a great option for people who are experiencing conditions such as a urinary tract infection, sore throat or ear infection.

Other common issues that can be treated at an urgent care center include:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge
  • Animal and insect bites
  • Cold and flu symptoms
  • Ear infections
  • Fever
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Low back pain
  • Minor bone breaks (most urgent care centers are equipped with an X-ray machine)
  • Minor cuts and puncture wounds, including ones that need stitches
  • Muscle pain or strain
  • Nosebleeds
  • Painful urination or urinary tract infections
  • Skin rash
  • Stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and constipation

A trip to an urgent care center can be a first step to getting the care you need. The doctors and nurses there can assess your problem and advise you on next steps. For example, if you have a broken bone, they can do an X-ray of your bone, patch you up for now, and help you set up a follow-up appointment with an orthopedist (bone specialist) for more thorough treatment.

If the problem is serious and urgent, they can also help you get to an ER.

Ready to explore insurance plans where you live?

What are the benefits of going to an urgent care center instead of the ER?

Urgent care centers can fill the gap between the ER and a regular doctor’s appointment. It’s a good option when your problem isn’t life-threatening, but you don’t want to wait for an appointment with your primary care doctor.

For non-life-threatening problems, there are a lot of benefits to going to an urgent care center. “An urgent care center is not as busy as a hospital,” says Patricia Harris, M.D. She is a primary care physician at Extra Care Concerns in Fort Worth, Texas. So wait times are often shorter.

And research shows that nearly a third of ER visits are not true emergencies. So going to an urgent care center can free up space in an ER, so that people with truly life-threatening problems can get the care they need quickly. One study found that urgent care centers reduce the number of ER visits by more than 17%.

Urgent care centers may also be more affordable than an ER visit. People spend an average of about $2,000 per ER visit for a treatable condition. The cost for the same condition at an urgent care center is typically less than $200.

Check your health plan details to compare the costs of an urgent care visit and an ER visit.

Can I get urgent care virtually?

Yes, some urgent care services can be provided virtually by phone, video call or texting. You’ll describe your symptoms to the provider, and they may be able to diagnose and even prescribe medicine if needed.

Check your health plan to see if virtual care is covered, and how much it costs. You can also figure this out by calling a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730 for more information. Or you can explore your coverage options online.

You’ll want to choose a video call if you have an issue that really needs to be looked at right away. “Maybe you have a rash or cut. A clinician can look at the cut on video and tell you if you need stitches,” says Dr. Ali.

Obviously, the clinician can’t give you stitches over the phone. So, you may need to go to an in-person follow-up to get the treatment you need.

Can I go to an urgent care center instead of my primary care doctor?

Urgent care centers are a great backup plan in case you can’t get an appointment with your primary care doctor. But it’s not a good idea to replace your relationship with your doctor entirely.

“An urgent care center is not a substitute for primary care,” says Dr. Harris. “Your primary care physician will have a history on you and will understand your medications and medical history.” So it’s best to seek care from (or consult with) your primary care doctor first, if you can.

If you do get treatment from urgent care at some point, be sure to let your primary care doctor know at your next visit so they can add it to your medical history.

Need a health insurance plan for you or your family? Explore your options now or contact a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730.


For informational purposes only. This information is compiled by UnitedHealthcare and does not diagnose problems or recommend specific treatment. Services and medical technologies referenced herein may not be covered under your plan. Please consult directly with your primary care physician if you need medical advice.


Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist. “Urgent Care vs. Emergency care: What’s the Difference?” Retrieved from Accessed May 12, 2023

Health Services Research. “The impact of urgent care centers on nonemergent emergency department visits.” August 2021. Retrieved from:

MedlinePlus. “When to use the emergency room — adult.” July 25, 2022. Retrieved from

UnitedHealthcare. “Urgent care vs. ER.” Retrieved from Accessed May 12, 2023

UnitedHealth Group. “The High Cost of Avoidable Hospital Emergency Department Visits.” July 22, 2019. Retrieved from:

Urgent Care Association. [Home Page]. Retrieved from Accessed May 12, 2023.

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