How to Know If Your Medical Concern Is an Emergency

Tips for deciding if you should go to an emergency room, urgent care center or walk-in clinic

A doctor discusses a treatment plan with a patient.

Tips for deciding if you should go to an emergency room, urgent care center or walk-in clinic

Not every medical concern requires rushing to the emergency room. But some things can’t wait until you can see your primary care doctor, either. 

“Patients may have some confusion about what level of care to seek,” says Scripps Clinic Vice President of Primary Care and Internist Siu Ming Geary, MD. “It's important to go to the right setting for the right condition.”

The levels of care that can be provided is distinctly different between hospital emergency rooms, traditional urgent care centers and walk-in clinics. Here’s a breakdown of the most common symptoms and the services provided at these three entities.

Walk-in clinics

At walk-in clinics, such as Scripps HealthExpress, patients can seek same day, convenient care for minor illnesses and health care needs. Scripps HealthExpress offers services for both adult and pediatric patients on a walk-in basis. Visits are even covered by many insurance plans.


  • Painful urination
  • Rashes without fever
  • Mild flu-like symptoms
  • Cough and congestion
  • Sore throat
  • Ear pain
  • Eye redness, discharge or itchiness
  • Sports, camp and school physicals


  • Advanced practice clinicians
  • Point-of-care testing (flu, strep, urine)

Urgent care centers

When you can’t wait for an appointment with your doctor, but you don’t quite need an emergency room, Scripps urgent care centers are open every day in Rancho Bernardo, Torrey Pines and Jefferson in Oceanside.


  • Fever without a rash
  • Vomiting or persistent diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Wheezing or shortness of breath
  • Dehydration
  • Moderate flu-like symptoms
  • Sprains and strains
  • Small cuts that may require stitches


  • IV hydration, IV treatments, including antibiotics
  • Basic lab work as needed
  • X-rays and additional radiology
  • Physician and advanced practice clinicians

Emergency rooms

Always head to the emergency room when life or limb are at risk. The staff there is ready for any critical situation, 24/7. “ERs are typically part of hospitals, so if you require surgery you can get that care as quickly as possible,” Dr. Geary adds.


  • Chest pain or difficulty breathing
  • Weakness/numbness on one side
  • Slurred speech
  • Fainting/change in mental state
  • Serious burns
  • Head or eye injury
  • Concussion/confusion
  • Broken bones and dislocated joints
  • Fever with a rash
  • Seizures
  • Severe cuts that may require stitches
  • Facial lacerations
  • Severe cold or flu symptoms
  • Vaginal bleeding with pregnancy


  • Services for severe illnesses and injuries
  • EKG, monitoring, x-rays and advanced imaging, labs, radiology, casting/fracture care
  • Emergency-trained physicians and specialists

Things to know

If your symptoms occur gradually, or you already know the diagnosis from previous experience, try to get a same-day appointment with your doctor. Maybe he or she can fit you in. 

No matter where you go, bring a list of all medications you take, previous medical procedures you’ve undergone and any allergies you have — it will be useful to the medical staff. 

For the most critical medical situations — like a heart attack or stroke — call 911 for an ambulance. You should not drive yourself if you’re suffering severe chest pain or impaired vision, bleeding severely or if you might faint.

Scripps Clinic vice president of primary care and internist Siu Ming Geary, MD. is featured on the cover of the September issue of San Diego Health.

This content appeared in San Diego Health, a publication in partnership between Scripps and San Diego Magazine that celebrates the healthy spirit of San Diego.

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