Urgent Care or Emergency Room: How to Decide Where to Take Your Sick Child

boy at doctor's office getting a cast

Imagine this: It’s a Monday evening; your daughter has not been feeling well all afternoon. You were hoping that she would make it until tomorrow so you could get her in to see her pediatrician, but she only seems to be getting worse. Will she be ok if you wait until tomorrow to see a doctor? Should you take her to an Urgent Care, or maybe even the Emergency Room?

Here’s some information that may help you decide what to do and where to go if you find yourself in a similar situation.

First, life-threatening emergencies should be handled in the Emergency Room (ER), and a call to 911 is the best way to get there. Please don’t try to take you child to the ER yourself. Life-threatening emergencies include breathing difficulties (including severe asthma attacks where the child is wheezing too much to count to ten or a baby is wheezing too much to drink or nurse), severe trauma, seizures, allergic reactions and head or neck injuries. Cincinnati Children’s has two full-service ERs – one at our Burnet (Main) Campus and one at our Liberty Campus.

If your child’s injury or illness is not life-threatening, but needs attention quickly and your pediatrician’s office is closed, Urgent Care is most likely the place to go. It is helpful to remember that going to Urgent Care is similar to your physician’s office, with a few added services. Please keep in mind that Urgent Care is not the ER and is not staffed for life-threatening emergencies. Cincinnati Children’s has five Urgent Care locations – at our Mason, Anderson, and Green Township outpatient locations, as well as Liberty Campus and Burnet (Main) Campus.

If you feel your child needs to be seen by a doctor, it is always best to call your child’s primary care physician first; he or she will direct you to the appropriate level of care. If you feel like you don’t have time to wait for a call-back from the physician on call, you should call 911 for help and a ride to the ER.

Here are some of the most common things we examine and treat at Urgent Care:

  • Simple lacerations and wounds
  • Fractures and injuries to arms, legs, fingers and toes
  • Ear aches, runny noses, cough and fevers, and common pediatric illnesses such as mild asthma attacks (cough and mild wheezing), stomach flu, diarrhea, vomiting, rashes and strep throat
  • Minor burns

You can find current estimated wait times for our Urgent Care centers on the right-hand side of this Urgent Care information page or on the individual Urgent Care pages.

You can also check current estimated wait times at all of our Urgent Care centers.

Here are some types of patients or situations that cannot be handled at an Urgent Care because we don’t have the resources or specialists, and some information about what to do instead:

  • Very young, unimmunized infants, often less than 2 months of age, with fever or illness such as vomiting or diarrhea – these patients should go to the ER because they will need testing that we cannot offer at Urgent Care
  • Children with extensive chronic medical problems – if your child has chronic medical problems, you should have a plan in place with his or her care providers that details exactly what you should do if you need help urgently
  • Patients who are 21 or older, even if they are followed by a Cincinnati Children’s specialty service – these patients may be seen in one of the Cincinnati Children’s ERs
  • Psychiatric or social service problems – our ERs have psychiatric intake personnel and social workers available 24 hours a day
  • Reproductive care or STDs – patients seeking this type of care should contact our Teen Health Clinic, their physician’s office or Planned Parenthood. If there is urgent need for this type of care, one of the ERs will be most appropriate.
  • Dental treatment – if an injury involves the teeth, head for the ER at our Burnet (Main) Campus. Dentists are not available at Liberty Campus.

Our Mason, Anderson, Green Township and Liberty Campus Urgent Care locations are open weekday evenings and during the afternoon and early evening on the weekend, but are closed on major holidays. Burnet Urgent Care is open 365 days per year. Please keep in mind that the Urgent Cares have set opening and closing times, and cannot register new patients after the doors are locked. If you need help after-hours, one of our emergency rooms will be the best place to go.

All of our Urgent Cares are staffed with a board-certified pediatrician, some with two pediatricians or a physician and a specially trained pediatric nurse practitioner. Our nurses are all specifically qualified to take care of pediatric patients and we have immediate access to both lab and x-ray, also staffed by pediatric specialists.

Dr. Peg Orcutt

About the Author: Dr. Peg Orcutt

Dr. Orcutt is an Urgent Care physician at Cincinnati Children’s. Dr. Orcutt is board certified in both pediatrics and emergency medicine. She is also a Fellow and immediate past president of the American College of Osteopathic Pediatrics and a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Emergency Physicians. The first part of her career was spent in the Naval Medical Corps. where she served 28 years, retiring with the rank of Captain. She has been at Cincinnati Children’s for more than 10 years and her commitment to clinical excellence and dedication to efficiency and patient safety are hallmarks of her approach to medicine.

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  1. heidi staub March 09, 01:04
    Dr (Captain) Orcutt! Hello again! I worked with you at WPAFB. I went around the world and ended up at CCHMC myself. After 17 yrs in the ER trenches, I've gone to the world of NICU, so I doubt I'll get to see you in person. (yes still working nights :-)) I do miss the ER some days. Heidi Staub, Capt (sep) USAF
  2. urgent care July 23, 08:26
    urgent care physicians are often the best choice for most healthcare needs. Not only do they have a personal relationship with your child, but they know your child's medical history, including allergies, vaccinations and recent illnesses. However, it can be difficult to see your doctor on short notice or after-hours... and some medical issues need immediate attention.
  3. Jen November 03, 20:54
    Thank you, this is extremely well-written! Very good information to keep on hand.
  4. Delores Lyon May 21, 18:35
    Thanks for sharing this advice on choosing between urgent care and the emergency room for different injuries. I agree that it is probably a good idea to go to an urgent care center when the injury needs to be looked at immediately, but isn't life altering. However, more serious issues like a serious chronic illness should definitely warrant a trip the ER. However, the level of care at emergency medical centers can vary from place to place.
  5. Katie Jones June 03, 12:41
    When it comes to having to go to hospital, it is actually a good idea to know how to differentiate. I like how you have tips to determine if something is an ER emergency or Urgent Care emergency. I will definitely want to pass this on to my friends who have kids as well so that way they can have peace of mind. http://www.tricitymedical.net
  6. June Robinson September 03, 18:21
    As a parents, we all worry about our children and want to provide them with the best care. Sometimes it is hard to know where to take them for this care, but this post helps me know the best option. I really like that this has specific lists for the ER and urgent care center, so there doesn't need to be any question of what to do. Thanks so much for sharing this.
  7. Logan Murphy October 26, 10:07
    I think a good way to know if our child should go to the emergency room is, as you mentioned, if they are in a life-threatening emergency. Like June said in her comment, as parents we all worry about our children. I want my son to be healthy and taken care of. We had to go to the emergency room once when he was younger. Everything was taken care of perfectly and we were so glad we took him to the emergency room, he received the right care because of it. Thanks for your really helpful article on taking care of our kids.
  8. […] you need a refresher on when to take your child to the Emergency Department versus Urgent Care, this link provides […]
  9. Annika Larson February 21, 15:59
    In a moment of emergency, it's always important to know what action to take. Understanding when to go to urgent care is part of that. I have three little boys, and I want to make sure I am prepared for any emergency. I didn't realize that strep throat could be treated at an urgent care, but that's nice to know. Thanks for sharing!
  10. Jessica Parker July 27, 21:28
    I had a hard time distinguishing where to take my son when he was really young and would often get sick. Many times I would just take him to the emergency room because it was so close to my house. They usually took a lot better care of him in the ER but many times it wasn't completely necessary to go to there. It helped to have good insurance at the time because he got sick so often! I think this article is great with distinguishing whether to take a child to the ER or urgent care.
  11. Duncan Lance October 11, 20:44
    It really can help to figure out when you should be taking your child to an urgent care center or an emergency room. After all, you will want to make sure that they are receiving the best and most appropriate care possible.
  12. Arthur Morrison January 11, 21:09
    It really is important for patients to learn which afflictions can be treated by the staff at an urgent care facility and which ones cannot. I particularly like that you bring up fractures as something that an urgent care center can address. After all, most people would just immediately assume that they need to go to the emergency room, so it helps to know that they have options.