What’s the difference between urgent and emergency care?

by Kaiser Permanente |
Parents with a young child talking to a clinician

When you’re sick or injured, it helps to understand the different levels of care and when they’re needed. For example, there are urgent situations that aren’t emergencies, such as a minor sprain or a sinus infection. These conditions may not need treatment right away, but should be evaluated within the next 24 to 48 hours. Then there are situations where you should go straight to an emergency room as soon as possible. Knowing the difference can help you get the right care when you need it and may also save you money.

Remember that if you’ve got questions or need advice, you can visit kp.org/getcare to learn about your options, including 24/7 care by phone.

If you think you or your family member has a medical or mental health emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.

Here are some examples of some conditions that can be treated in urgent care versus emergency care.

Urgent care (treatment needed within 24 to 48 hours):

  • Minor injuries and cuts
  • Backaches
  • Sore throats and earaches

Emergency care (treatment needed right away to prevent serious jeopardy to health):

  • Severe, persistent bleeding
  • Major broken bones and head injuries
  • Severe fever
  • Violent vomiting

Here’s an explanation of the levels of care, with more helpful examples.

Urgent care

A care need that isn’t an emergency but requires prompt medical attention, usually within 24 to 48 hours. Examples include:

  • Minor injuries and cuts
  • Sore throats and earaches
  • Frequent or severe coughs
  • Frequent urination or a burning sensation when urinating

Emergency care

A medical or psychiatric condition that requires immediate medical attention to prevent serious jeopardy to your health. Examples include:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Severe stomach pain that comes on suddenly
  • Decrease in or loss of consciousness
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Severe headache that comes on suddenly or is accompanied by nausea
  • Sudden numbness, tingling, weakness, or loss of movement in your face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of your body

4 reasons to go to urgent care

For minor injuries and illnesses, going to urgent care instead of the emergency room can help make sure you get the right care at the right time — and may also save you time and money. Here are 4 reasons why:

  • The right care at the right time. You’ll get the care you need for your illness or injury.
  • Shorter wait times. You’ll usually get care faster than in the emergency department, which treats seriously sick and injured patients first.
  • Convenient hours. Many of our urgent care centers are open evenings, weekends, and holidays — walk-ins welcome.
  • Lower out-of-pocket costs. You typically pay less for an urgent care visit than for an emergency department visit.

To learn more, visit our page on where to get medical care.

*An emergency medical condition is a medical condition manifesting itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity (including severe pain) such that you reasonably believed that the absence of immediate medical attention would result in any of the following: (1) placing the person’s health (or, with respect to a pregnant person, the health of the pregnant person or unborn child) in serious jeopardy; (2) serious impairment to bodily functions; or (3) serious dysfunction of any bodily organ or part.

A mental health condition is an emergency medical condition when it meets the requirements of the paragraph above or, for members who are not enrolled in Kaiser Permanente Senior Advantage, when the condition manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity such that either of the following is true: The person is an immediate danger to themself or to others, or the person is immediately unable to provide for or use food, shelter, or clothing due to the mental disorder.