Emergency room versus Urgent care infographic.

Americans make more than 130 million visits to the emergency room every year.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common reasons for ER visits include stomach and abdominal pain, chest pain, fever, headache and back pain.  

While some of these symptoms, like chest pain, could indicate serious conditions (such as a heart attack), many can be treated at an urgent care center.

A visit to the emergency room can cost up to five times more than a visit to an urgent-care center, so it pays to know where to go.

When to go to the ER

If you are experiencing any of the following, go to the ER

  • Bleeding that doesn't stop after 10 minutes of direct pressure
  • Signs of a heart attack, such as chest pains that last more than two minutes
  • Signs of stroke, such as numbness of the face, arm and leg on one side of the body, sudden loss of vision or loss of speech
  • Severe shortness of breath or sudden dizziness
  • Major injuries such as broken bones, partial or total amputation of a limb, or trauma to the head
  • Coughing up or vomiting blood
  • Suicidal feelings

When experiencing an emergency, the last thing you need to think about is cost. That's why it's a good idea to locate in-network hospitals with emergency rooms ahead of time, so you know where to go if an emergency occurs.

You can find in-network hospitals near you by using Find a doctor. While ER visits cost a lot more than urgent care visits, using an in-network hospital will cost you less than a hospital that is outside your network.

When to go to urgent care

If you are experiencing the following symptoms, go to an urgent care center:

  • Cuts or wounds where bleeding is controlled
  • Sprains, strains or bruises
  • Mild or moderate asthma attacks
  • Infections of the urinary tract, ear or upper respiratory system.
  • Flu-like symptoms, such as sore throat, fever, coughing and congestion
  • Mild or moderate stomach pains or diarrhea
  • Rashes, insect bites or sunburns

Not only do you save money by going to urgent care, you will probably have a shorter wait time, too.

Be sure find an in-network urgent care center by using Find a doctor. Using an out-of-network urgent care center will cost you more.

If you have the time to shop around a bit and know what kind of test or procedure you might need, use the Cost estimator to find an urgent care center that offers the lowest price.

Still not sure where to go?

If you can't decide where to go for treatment, call your primary care provider. Even if it's after hours, there may be a nurse or on-call doctor you can talk to.

Your health plan may also provide you with access to the Advice24 nurse line where you can get guidance on where to go.

If you don't have a primary care provider, start with urgent care. You can usually get in quickly, and most urgent care centers are open in the evenings and on weekends. They can tell you if you need to head to an ER. They can even help you refill a prescription.

Many people end up in the ER because they don't know what else to do. By having a plan and thinking ahead, you can make smart choices that are good not only for your health, but your budget as well.

Video: Emergency room vs. urgent care