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Urgent Care Vs. Emergency Room for Your Child's Illness

August 20, 2019
emergency room

Most of us can tell the difference between an illness or injury that requires a trip to the emergency room at a nearby hospital, and one that can be treated at an urgent care center. But when the symptoms are impacting a child, especially a young child, it can be difficult to know what response is required. Younger children will not be as familiar with the aches, pains, and discomfort they’re experiencing, and will be less able to describe them.

So while you can’t always know with certainty what kind of care your child needs, you can know the differences between an emergency room and an urgent care center, especially in the ways they are prepared to diagnose and treat children. Read on for an overview of each option, as well as information about less common pediatric urgent care centers.

A Hospital Emergency Room

It’s difficult to parse out the difference between an emergency and an issue that needs to be tended to urgently, without waiting for an appointment with your family’s physician. A medical or health emergency has the potential to be life-threatening. An emergent health issue that could result in debilitation or a drastic change in the quality of life -- injuries or illnesses that could severely impact or cause loss of vital senses: vision, hearing, speech -- could be considered cause for a trip to the emergency room, as well. Emergency rooms are open 24 hours, every day, and this can influence your decision if your child has a health issue while your local urgent care center is closed. Bear in mind that emergency rooms are often intimidating and can be frightening to a younger child. That enhanced anxiety can have an impact on their health and how they report it.

Urgent Care Centers

In the simplest terms, a visit to an urgent care center is not very different from a trip to your family’s physician: it is simply an opportunity to see a doctor for an emerging situation without waiting for an appointment. Urgent care center physicians are able to assess, diagnose, and treat nearly any illness or injury presented at the urgent care center. They are able to order tests, including X-rays and blood-work, and are able to prescribe medications. Frequently, children report symptoms consistent with common allergies and colds -- discomforts they may not be familiar enough with to recognize as routine. Recent data bears out the routine nature of many childhood health issues: More than a quarter of U.S. children suffer from skin, respiratory, or food allergies; and the most common conditions treated at urgent care centers colds or cold-related. It’s worth noting that at certain times of the year, your child may not be the only victim of these kinds of circulating illnesses. One of the advantages of an urgent care center is that the whole family can be treated in a single visit without the overwhelming wait times that would accompany a similar visit to an emergency room.

While you are generally better served having your child treated by the physician that knows her best, emerging health issues will often require immediate attention.

Pediatric Urgent Care Centers

They are less common and more difficult to find, but many pediatric urgent care centers are operating now. These centers combine the best of your family’s physician with the immediacy of an urgent care center. They will staff pediatricians and other specialists and will be equipped to keep your child comfortable and distracted. They will be more focused on your child, her needs, and her potential needs, and a great deal less intimidating than an emergency room.

Pediatric Hospital Emergency Room

Many pediatric hospitals also feature emergency rooms. They are more sparsely distributed, but for quality and coordination of care, they are worth searching for, even for minor complaints.

Listening to your child is the most important element in determining the severity of her illness and your most appropriate response. If there is an immediate threat to life and continuing normal health, visit an emergency room. Otherwise, find an urgent care center or a pediatric urgent care center.

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