What's the Difference Between Urgent Care and ER for Kids

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on May 04, 2022

Children often fall sick or fall while playing, and your pediatrician isn't always available. The options for medical care are pediatric urgent care and the emergency room (ER). They're both available as walk-in medical care for urgent situations. Going to the ER has always been the option for out-of-hours care when your child is suddenly ill or injured. Urgent care clinics are a newer option and provide convenient and extended hours. Their expertise and abilities are not the same, however. You must know when to go to the emergency room and when to go to urgent care.

Pediatric Urgent Care

Urgent care centers provide non-emergency care when your pediatrician's office is closed. They're often conveniently located within grocery or retail stores. Besides non-emergency care, they may also provide preventive care like vaccination.

Urgent care centers are convenient, quick, and cost less than emergency room care. These centers don't require appointments, but some offer time slot booking. Most urgent care centers have at least one physician on staff, but other facilities vary. Some urgent care centers are part of a hospital and have access to all their parent institution's laboratory, imaging, and hospitalization facilities. Freestanding urgent care centers may not be as well-equipped.

Urgent care centers may not always have nurses and physicians trained in the care of children. If an urgent care center offers care to children, they should be able to: 

  • Manage common illnesses like fever, asthma, diarrhea, and other diseases
  • Manage common childhood injuries like lacerations, minor fractures, and others
  • Recognize child abuse and neglect and act appropriately
  • Rapidly assess serious situations beyond their limits of care and refer them to an ER immediately

An urgent care center with expertise in children's care is a valuable option for your children's health care. Such a center should have child-appropriate equipment and staff trained in the care of children. Urgent care centers provide treatment for minor illnesses that could become severe if not treated rapidly. A well-managed urgent care center will also be able to assess, stabilize, and transfer children needing emergency care.

About a fifth of urgent care centers are dedicated to the treatment of children. These centers are best equipped to care for your child in terms of equipment and trained staff. Children's urgent care centers employ physicians trained in pediatrics, pediatric emergency medicine, emergency medicine, or family medicine.

Some urgent care centers are attached to academic medical centers or major hospitals. More than half of pediatric urgent care centers are located inside a hospital.

Ask if the urgent care center will communicate with your child's pediatrician. They should inform about your child's illness, the medicines prescribed, and any test results. This will enable your pediatrician to update your child's medical record. Your pediatrician can also take over care when you follow up with them.

Going to ER

There are some situations when you must go to the ER. Emergency rooms are usually attached to hospitals and are equipped to treat all kinds of serious diseases and injuries. Choose the ER if:

  • Your child has a fever and is less than 2 months old. At this age, fevers could be a sign of a serious infection.
  • Your child had a blow to the head and passed out. Even if the child seems well now, you should seek evaluation at an emergency room.
  • Your child has difficulty breathing. They're struggling to breathe or can speak only two or three words before pausing for breath. 
  • Your child’s lips are blue.
  • Your child had a seizure.
  • You believe your child has a broken bone. All urgent care centers don't have x-ray facilities, and they can only handle the simplest fractures.
  • There are injuries or cuts that will need your child to be sedated for treatment and repair.
  • Your child is dehydrated (has a dry mouth, sunken eyes, and is passing no urine or very little.)

When to Go to an Emergency Room

Emergency rooms are far better-equipped and staffed than urgent care centers. If your child is seriously ill or injured, you should rush to one. But emergency rooms function to give immediate care to the sickest or worst injured. If you go there with a minor illness or injury, you may wait for a long time to be seen by a physician. Besides, emergency room care is typically more expensive than urgent care or your pediatrician.

When to Go to Urgent Care

Urgent care typically replaces your own pediatrician during the night or on weekends. That means you go to urgent care when your child's illness or injury is not an emergency. You'd choose an urgent care center when your child:

  • Has a fever and symptoms that seem to be the flu
  • Has a fever and is pulling at their ear
  • Is wheezing, but isn't breathless
  • Has difficulty talking normally
  • Has a sore throat and fever
  • Has an allergic reaction to something but hasn't any difficulty breathing
  • Has an injury or minor burn that needs cleaning, dressing, or stitches
  • Had an injury to the head but never lost consciousness
  • Is vomiting or has diarrhea, but is passing urine normally
  • Has red eyes with itching

You would usually go to your pediatrician for these situations. An urgent care center with staff trained in the care of children would also handle them. Some urgent care centers without staff trained in pediatrics are likely to refer you to an ER for even minor illnesses.

Urgent Care Versus Emergency Room

It seems simple enough: go to the ER for a serious illness or a life-threatening situation. Go to an urgent care center for non-emergency medical care when your pediatrician's office isn't open. But when your kid's sick or injured, you may find it hard to decide. 

Try calling your pediatrician's office. There is often an answering service with a physician or nurse. You'll be able to describe your problem, and they'll advise you about the best course of action. 

Show Sources

American Academy of Pediatrics: "Pediatric Care Recommendations for Freestanding Urgent Care Facilities."
BMC Health Services Research: "Pediatric urgent care education: a survey-based needs assessment."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Urgent Care Center and Retail Health Clinic Utilization Among Children: United States, 2019."
Children's Healthcare of Atlanta: "Pediatrician, Urgent Care or Emergency Care? Know Where to Take Your Child."
John Hopkins Medicine: "Urgent Care Versus the ER A Pediatrician Offers Tips on Making the Right Choice."

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