If you or a loved one has ever had an emergency or urgent health situation—a broken bone, a sprained ankle, or pink eye—you may have wondered where to go for treatment. Should you go to a hospital emergency room, an urgent care center, or an express care center? What are the differences among these facilities?

This article will help you decide when you have a true medical emergency that requires an emergency room visit, and when you can safely go to an urgent care or express care center.

The hospital emergency room

Hospital emergency rooms treat all emergency situations, but are especially prepared to treat the most serious injuries and medical situations, including the following:

  • Heart attack/chest pain
  • Trouble breathing
  • Stroke/inability to move/sudden paralysis
  • Loss of consciousness (passing out)
  • Bleeding that can’t be stopped
  • Broken bones
  • Head injuries
  • Severe burns
  • Poisoning
  • Emotional or mental health emergency

Some hospital emergency rooms are also equipped to provide trauma care for people with extremely serious injuries, such those who have a gunshot wound or who have been in a car accident.

Urgent care center

The urgent care center is designed to handle less serious illnesses and medical situations. These are conditions that are not life-threatening, but should be treated within 24 hours. These include:

  • Sprains and strains
  • Sinus infections
  • Ear infections
  • Allergies, especially those that get worse during certain seasons
  • Minor cuts and burns
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness

Express care center

Express care centers provide care for relatively minor conditions, such as:

  • Coughs and colds
  • Pink eye
  • Earaches
  • Rashes
  • Muscle strains

Urgent care and express care centers are walk-in facilities, which means that you don’t need to make an appointment. They are less costly than a hospital emergency room visit, and you can usually be seen more quickly than you would be in an emergency room.

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