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Urgent Care or ER: A Guide, by Symptom

Urgent Care or ER: A Guide, by Symptom

Written by SMH Digital Content Editor Ann Key

Medical care at an urgent care center is not the same as care at an emergency room.

For some injuries / illnesses, deciding where to go for treatment is a no-brainer: You have a stuffy nose, go to an urgent care center; your femur is poking through your skin, head to the emergency room. But if your condition falls in the gray zone of uncertainty, consult our list below for general guidance on where to go based on your symptoms.

Urgent care centers (UCC) can be thought of as filling the gap between your primary care physician’s office and the hospital’s emergency room (ER). If your symptoms are something you’d typically go to see your regular doctor about, but you can’t wait until the office opens or has availability, then a visit to an urgent care center is in order. However, if your illness or injury is life-threatening, go to the ER. If you’re not sure whether your condition is life-threatening, go to the ER — just to play it safe.

Sarasota Memorial’s Urgent Care Centers can provide X-rays and lab testing, immunizations and school sports physicals, as well as immediate, comprehensive treatment for colds, flu and other non-life threatening illnesses and injuries. Urgent care clinics are better equipped than a doctor’s office to treat minor, non-life-threatening emergencies, but they do not have the life-saving equipment that is available in emergency rooms and trauma centers like Sarasota Memorial Hospital, nor can they provide emergency surgery.

“Urgent care centers are not mini-ERs,” said Dr. Reuben Holland, medical director of Sarasota Memorial’s emergency and urgent care centers. “Our centers are equipped to treat many urgent conditions, like minor lacerations, fractures and burns, but they don’t have access to all the life-saving medications, specialists and equipment in an emergency department.”

If you are experiencing signs of a stroke, heart attack or other life-threatening condition, call 911 and go straight to the emergency room. If you’re experiencing chest pain, impaired consciousness, bleeding that won’t stop or difficulty breathing, call 911 and get to the hospital ER as quickly as possible.

Time-saver Tip

Before you head to an SMH Urgent Care Center, check in online using Save My Spot or download the SMH Urgent Care app. You can choose the time slot and urgent care location that are best for you. You can also download the medical forms you'll need and fill them out prior to your arrival.

Seeking Care for COVID-19 Symptoms


COVID-19 symptoms can range from very mild to very severe. They also can vary from case to case, but commonly include:

  • Fever (100 degrees or above) and chills
  • Cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Muscle pain and headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea

For life-threatening symptoms (trouble breathing, new confusion, persistent chest pain, inability to stay awake, pale/blue skin or lips, etc.): Call 9-1-1 and seek immediate emergency care at a hospital ER.

For severe but not life-threatening symptoms and for mild symptoms: Call your healthcare provider or visit an urgent care center as soon as possible.

If your symptoms are mild and you have underlying health conditions, such as a weakened immune system or chronic respiratory disease, contact your doctor for guidance.

It's a good idea to call ahead before visiting any care center to let them know you may have COVID-19, but it's not required at Sarasota Memorial Urgent Care Centers or ERs.

Click here for a guide on COVID-19 care at home.

No symptoms but think you were exposed?
The CDC advises staying home and self-monitoring for symptoms for 14 days after the last potential exposure; maintain 6-foot distance from others at all times during quarantine.

Go to an Urgent Care Center for:

Non-life-threatening illnesses or injuries for patients older than 3 months, such as—

  • Allergies
  • Animal or insect bites (including tick removal)
  • Bone fractures or simple breaks
  • Bronchitis
  • Congestion, nasal and chest
  • Cough
  • Colds
  • Diarrhea
  • Ear infection
  • Fever
  • Flu
  • General feeling of un-wellness
  • Minor asthma
  • Minor burns
  • Minor cuts and bleeding that may require stitches
  • Pink eye
  • Rashes
  • Sinus infection
  • Sore throat
  • Sports injuries
  • Sprains / strains
  • Stingray or jellyfish stings
  • Strep throat
  • Sunburn or sun poisoning
  • Upper respiratory infection
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Vaccines / immunizations: flu, pneumonia, tetanus, pertussis, shingles
  • Vomiting (that isn’t constant)
  • X-rays and lab tests

Go to the ER for:

  • True medical emergencies and traumas, or medical conditions that require immediate treatment between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.
  • Heart attack symptoms: Chest pain, any suspicion of heart ailment, heart irregularity
  • Stroke symptoms: Weakness on one side, tingling, numbness, facial drooping
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bleeding that won’t stop
  • Blood in stool
  • Coughing blood or vomiting blood
  • Debilitating headache
  • Dehydration (weakness, no longer sweating, no urination in 12 hours, confusion, dizziness, nausea)
  • Falls while pregnant
  • Head injuries
  • High fever
  • Infant care, any symptoms if patient is younger than 3 months old
  • Seizures
  • Severe burns / cuts / wounds
  • Severe injury / trauma
  • Shock
  • Shortness of breath / gasping / respiratory distress
  • Slurred speech
  • Sudden paralysis
  • Unconsciousness
  • Vaginal bleeding with pregnancy
  • Visible fracture / broken bones / dislocation
  • Vomiting that won’t stop


Urgent Care for Children

When trying to decide whether to take a child (older than 3 months) to an urgent care center or the ER, it’s important to assess how responsive the child is. If your child is still answering questions coherently and making eye contact, they generally can be seen at an urgent care.

When it comes to fever in kids, remember to look at your child before you look at the thermometer. No matter what the thermometer says, if your child is not responsive or is lethargic, get them to the ER. If the child has fever under 101.5 and is acting normally, an urgent care visit most likely will suffice.

Call 911 & Take Child to ER: If a child is in respiratory distress, vomiting to point of lethargy, having seizures or suffered a head injury, call an ambulance and get them to the ER as soon as possible.

SMH Digital Content Editor Ann Key** Content updated April 9, 2021.

As Sarasota Memorial's digital content editor, Ann Key manages the health care system's Healthe-Matters blog and its "Ask An Expert" and "TopTips" video series, as well as other social media and wellness content channels. If you have a health question you need answered or a wellness topic you'd like a local expert to weigh in on, please email

Posted: Dec 7, 2018,
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