When you have an unexpected injury, feel unusual pain, or if you recognize the onset of cold or flu symptoms outside usual doctor’s office hours, one question often arises: Where should I go to get assessed?

If you go to your regular physician, you will have to make an appointment. But if you head to the emergency room (ER), you face long wait times and might have to pay quite a bit for outpatient treatment. In many cases, there’s a much better alternative: an urgent care facility.

What is urgent care? 

Urgent care specialist Dr. Kristina Jackson says, “Urgent care provides same day care for non-life-threatening needs, such as sore throats and illnesses to cuts or broken bones.”

“An urgent care is a health care facility in which you can walk in without an appointment for medical issues that are not immediately life-threatening,” Dr. Cameron Mitchell, another urgent care specialist at Summit Health, explains.

In other words, an ambulance won’t bring you to an urgent care facility after a car accident or being called for another emergency. But you can certainly bring yourself or someone else to a walk-in urgent care for common household and athletic injuries, including burns, strains, sprains, and breaks. You can also visit for illnesses such as pneumonia, strep, flu, COVID-19, and sexually transmitted diseases—anything where a rapid lab test and diagnosis could keep it from spreading.

In some cases, you can head to the closest urgent care location for a life-threatening issue such as an asthma attack or an allergic reaction.

Why go to an urgent care? 

Urgent care “is less expensive, and you’re usually seen in a timelier fashion,” Dr. Mitchell says with Dr. Jackson adding, “It’s a great option for patients who need same-day, non-emergent care such as headaches, respiratory illness, urinary tract infections, rashes and injuries.”

Use an urgent care for suspected ear, throat, or urinary tract infections, as doctors there can send out cultures to determine the precise bacteria. Or go for sutures after cutting yourself in the kitchen. “We can perform procedures like incision and drainage for abscess care or basic laceration care,” Dr. Mitchell says.

You can also ask for immunizations, such as influenza and tetanus, in a safe and private environment.

What can you expect from an urgent care?

An urgent care operates as a same-day non-emergent health care facility. As with both, you need to bring your insurance card and ID so that you can register when you come in. Once you’re called, a health care professional will take your vitals and bring you to a private examination area.

What tests can you get done at urgent care locations?

Extensive lab options including various blood tests; routine testing including mono, strep, COVID, urinalysis as well as cultures and STD testing. We also have X-ray, ultrasound, vascular imaging, CT, and MRI.

We can also give IV medications including antibiotics and fluids if indicated.

How should you determine whether to go to an urgent care?

If you’re looking for basic annual tests like pap smears and mammograms, or management of chronic diseases such as COPD, diabetes, and blood pressure issues, see your primary care physician rather than an urgent care, Dr. Jackson recommends. But, whatever your issue, keep in mind that urgent care facilities are usually only open during daytime hours and weekend and holiday hours may vary.

If you are experiencing symptoms that need immediate attention, Dr. Mitchell says to head to the closest ER.