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Urgent Care or the Emergency Department?

Last updated: June 25, 2021

The summer months in Wisconsin are unbeatable for taking advantage of the great outdoors, but as we all know, those adventures can sometimes prove unpredictable, or even dangerous. ThedaCare recognizes this and is here to provide the quality care you deserve and expect.

So, if you or a family member suffers a bee sting or feels sick from too much time in the sun, how do you know where to go for immediate care? Urgent care or the emergency department? Here are some pointers for making the right decision.  

A Potentially Life-Saving Decision

“The first and fast rule is if it’s life threatening, go to the emergency department,” says Dr. Jose Dias, Family Medicine Physician with ThedaCare. “That can be a heart attack, stroke, a broken bone coming through the skin, bad cuts that don’t stop bleeding, or a high-speed crash.”

Knowing where to go means you or your loved one will get life-saving care as soon as possible for serious, life threatening injuries.

On the other hand, recognizing when minor injuries illnesses can be treated through urgent care means saving money on medical costs while still getting quality care.

When is Urgent Walk-In Care the Right Choice?

Urgent care provides immediate, onsite, non-emergency care. You should choose an urgent care or walk-in clinic when you have a minor injury or illness and need attention before you can make an appointment with your primary care provider. Our skilled urgent care providers provide quick, cost-effective treatment and diagnostic testing, including screenings, X-rays, ultrasounds, lab work, and limited immunizations.

Here are some common conditions our urgent care providers treat:

  • Tick and other bug bites
  • Sunburn
  • Swollen joints
  • Work injuries
  • Fevers
  • Broken bones
  • Minor wounds and cuts that require stitches
  • Mild asthma or allergies
  • Sprained wrists, ankles, and other sprains
  • Strained backs and other strains
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Cold and flu symptoms
  • Headaches
  • Mild stomach pains
  • Pink eye
  • Poison ivy and other rashes
  • Sinus infections
  • Earaches
  • Sports injuries
  • Urinary tract infections and other urinary problems
  • Dislocated toes, fingers, and other simple dislocations

ThedaCare has 33 primary care clinics across northeast and central Wisconsin, many offering same-day appointments. Urgent and walk-in care is available as well. Urgent and walk-in care clinics see new and existing patients, as well as children 3 months and older.

When is Emergency Care Necessary?

Emergency departments are for major injuries and illnesses that can’t wait for help.

Many people don’t like going to the emergency department because of the perception that it will cost a lot of money, even if it’s the level of care they truly need, Dr. Dias said. If you go to a ThedaCare urgent care clinic with a serious injury, you’ll be sent to the emergency department anyway, and risk potentially delaying care.

Here are some instances when you should get to an emergency department as soon as possible:

  • Moderate to severe chest pain and other heart attack symptoms
  • Serious head injuries
  • Severe allergic reactions from anything that results in difficulty breathing or facial swelling
  • Severe cuts with major bleeding
  • Stroke symptoms (sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body; difficulty speaking; confusion; difficulty seeing; dizziness or loss of balance; or a sudden, severe headache with no known cause)
  • Moderate to severe dehydration
  • Heatstroke (sun stroke) and heat exhaustion
  • Severe burns
  • Loss of consciousness

When someone is having a stroke or suffering from a serious wound, every minute counts. Call 911 immediately to get to an emergency department quickly. The cost is worth saving someone’s life.

ThedaCare hospitals and medical centers have emergency departments that are staffed 24 hours a day by full-time physicians and nurses who specialize in emergency medicine. Look for the entrance under the red EMERGENCY sign at any ThedaCare hospital or medical center to enter the emergency department.

Other Pressing Questions

How do I know if my bee sting is bad enough to go to the emergency department?

It’s pretty easy to tell when something like a broken bone requires urgent or emergency care. But what about a bee sting, which can be fatal for some and less severe for others?

Here’s where you should keep Dr. Dias’ first rule in mind: If it’s life-threatening, go to the emergency department as fast as possible.

If a loved one who’s allergic to bees gets stung, go to the emergency department. In this case, you know the reaction could be life-threatening. If you’re not sure if the person is allergic to bees or other stinging insects, monitor their physical reaction. Get to the emergency department if the person has any of the following symptoms:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Swelling of the lips, throat or face
  • Loss of consciousness

For less-serious reactions, such as swelling at the site of the sting that lasts several days, urgent care clinics are the best choice.

What about heatstroke?

Heatstroke, also known as sun stroke, happens when your body overheats and your temperature rises to 104 degrees F (40 degrees C) or higher. It’s the most serious form of heat injury, according to Mayo Clinic, and it’s most common in the summer months.

“If untreated, heatstroke can damage your brain, heart, kidneys, and muscles and lead to death,” says Dr. David Hale, Emergency Medicine Physician with ThedaCare. “The damage worsens the longer you wait, making it critical to get to the emergency department if you start feeling sick, dizzy, or weak after a lot of time in the sun or heat.”

How about dehydration?

Hours in the heat combined with physical acitivity also can cause dehydration, especially in young children and older adults. You probably know the symptoms of mild dehydration — a dry mouth and feeling thirsty. Severe dehydration will present additional problems and can cause long-term damage if not treated.

Go to the emergency department if you experience any of these symptoms of dehydration:

  • Dizziness
  • Light-headedness
  • Weakness and lethargy
  • Haven’t urinated in 24 hours
  • Dry mouth
  • Dry, sunken eyes

Last question: Is my sunburn bad enough to need a doctor?

“Sunburn can be extremely painful, but it usually doesn’t require emergency care,” Dr. Hale said.

A first-degree sunburn causes pain and redness, while a second-degree burn will turn into blisters. If your sunburn starts to blister, you can go to an urgent care or walk-in clinic for a burn dressing to help your skin heal.

Painful sunburn is preventable if you wear sunscreen and reapply often. The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates one in five U.S. adults will develop skin cancer by age 70, which is one more reason to lather up before going outside during the summer!

Know Before You Go

The last thing anyone wants is to get seriously hurt or ill during the best months of the year in Wisconsin.

If you or a loved one suffers a life-threatening injury or illness, call 911 immediately and get to the emergency department. You can’t afford to waste any time when it comes to your health.

If your condition isn’t serious (like a blistering sunburn or a tick bite), it’s worth your time and money to go to urgent care first. You’ll get great treatment from the experienced providers at ThedaCare urgent care and walk-in clinics, and you’ll save on the cost.

Lastly, keep in mind that many common summer health issues are preventable.

“Take precautions and use common sense before embarking on your adventure, even if it means carrying the extra weight of a water bottle on your hike or spending time applying sunscreen and bug spray,” Dr. Hale said. “Let’s make this a memorable summer — for all the right reasons.”

ThedaCare makes it easy to determine the appropriate source of care based on your symptoms. Get the care you need, when and where you need it.

Tags: access check symptoms emergency urgent care walk-in care

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