Where to go for medical care when you are sick or hurt

Learn how to decide if you should call your doctor, go to an urgent care clinic, or go to a hospital emergency department right away for care.

Table of Contents

When to call 911

911   is for life-threatening emergencies that need immediate help.

Call 911 to have an emergency team come to you right away for emergencies such as:

  • Choking
  • Stopped breathing or turning blue
  • Chest pain or symptoms of a heart attack
  • Signs of stroke (face droop, arm weakness, speech difficulty)
  • Possible poisoning*
  • Head injury with passing out, throwing up, or not behaving normally
  • Injury to neck or spine
  • Severe burn
  • Seizure that lasts more than a few minutes or repeated seizures
  • Bleeding that cannot be stopped
  • Ongoing suicide attempt or actively suicidal and not going for help
  • Behavior that puts self or others at risk of harm

*For possible poisonings, you can also call the nearest Poison Control Center. In Massachusetts, call (800) 222-1222, available 24/7.

When to go to a hospital emergency department (ED/ER)

Emergency departments  are for severe illness or injuries.

Hospital emergency departments are open 24 hours a day, every day. They don't require appointments, but sometimes there is a long wait. Go there if you have symptoms like:

  • Chest pain or difficulty breathing
  • Broken bones or any head, neck, or eye injuries
  • Weakness, numbness, or slurred speech
  • Heavy bleeding or vomiting/coughing up blood
  • Poisoning or severe allergic reactions
  • Moderate or severe cuts and burns
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Going into labor (or go where the obstetrics team instructs you) 
  • Severe anxiety or depression, or feeling dangerously ‘out of control’

When to go to an urgent care center

Urgent care centers  are for mild illnesses and minor injuries.

Urgent care centers may be able to help when you don't have a primary care provider or you cannot see your regular doctor. Some urgent care centers are open during evenings and weekends. They usually don't require appointments. 

Urgent care centers can help with things like:

  • Mild symptoms like cough, fever, sore throat, nausea/vomiting, ear pain, headache
  • Mild rashes, small cuts, bug bites, or mild burns
  • Injuries like sprained bones and strained muscles
  • Mild allergic reactions (rashes or itching)

An urgent care provider will assess your condition and get you to emergency care if needed.

When to go to a doctor's office or request a virtual visit

If you have a doctor (for example, a primary care doctor, obstetrician, or child's pediatrician), they may have appointments during their normal hours (usually 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Monday–Friday).

They can help with things like:

  • Checkups to prevent illness or care for ongoing medical issues
  • Referral for nonemergency specialty care
  • Mild symptoms like cough, fever, sore throat, nausea/vomiting, ear pain, headache
  • Medicine questions or prescription refills
  • Vaccines or blood tests

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