When to Go to the Doctor and When to Go to the Emergency Department

By Jacqueline L. Scheier, D.O.

If a health issue suddenly arises, it may not be clear where you should seek help. Do you go to a hospital emergency department (ED) right away? Call 911 for an ambulance? Call your primary physician? Or seek out something in between, such as an urgent care center?

Where you should go all depends on what your health problem is and how severe it is.

Basic guidelines on where to go are:

  • If you’re experiencing a health emergency that’s life threatening or time sensitive, go to an ED.
  • If you’re experiencing what seems like a routine health issue, call your doctor.
  • If your health situation is urgent, but not life threatening, consider an urgent care center.

Although those guidelines may help in some clear-cut medical situations, there are other symptoms or scenarios in which you may still be confused on where to turn for medical help.

If You Have the Flu…

While the flu can come on quickly and make you feel downright crummy, this is not a medical issue you should visit the ED for. Rather, you should call your doctor in order to run your symptoms by a professional to confirm what you’re feeling is the flu. Plus, if you can reach your doctor within the first 48 hours of developing symptoms, your doctor may recommend antiviral flu medications, which may shorten the duration of your flu by a few days or potentially lessen its intensity.

Your doctor can also recommend what you should do at home to feel better and reduce the risk of spreading it to others. If you start feeling flu symptoms after your doctor’s office closes for the night or over a weekend and they are not available by phone after hours, an urgent care clinic can also prescribe you antiviral flu medications if indicated.

The exception to this rule is when it comes to the flu’s accompanying fever – if your temperature rises above 104 degrees Fahrenheit, consider an ED visit.

If You Have a Headache or Migraine…

Most headaches and migraines aren’t life threatening, just painful and distracting. Your primary care doctor can help you determine any headache or migraine triggers, and also recommend medications that can help.

However, some headaches should signal you to go to the ED. If it feels excruciating and like the worst headache of your life, especially if it comes on quickly. These symptoms may signal a ruptured aneurysm or a stroke, which are absolutely life threatening and time-sensitive emergencies.

If your headache is accompanied by a fever or stiff neck, it may be a sign of meningitis. Since getting treated as quickly as possible is crucial to prevent permanent brain damage or death, go to an ED.

If You Have Heartburn…

It’s not uncommon to experience heartburn after a big meal or eating certain foods. If you frequently experience heartburn, you should talk to your doctor – he or she will help you identify triggers, recommend remedies and work with you to reduce its frequency in order to prevent long-term damage.

However, if heartburn is accompanied by nausea, indigestion, abdominal pain, shortness of breath, a cold sweat, fatigue, lightheadedness, sudden dizziness, and pressure, tightness, pain or a squeezing sensation in your chest or arms that spreads to your neck, jaw or back, don’t hesitate going to an ED or calling 911 – these are telltale signs that you may be having a heart attack.

In the event that you’re having a heart attack, immediate treatment is crucial. With each passing minute, more heart tissue loses oxygen and deteriorates or dies – doctors need to restore blood flow quickly to prevent more damage.  The goal for restoring blood flow is within 90 minutes of the start of the heart attack.

If you are still not sure if you should wait to see your primary care physician or go to the ED, it is better to be safe and visit the closest ED.

The information provided here should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies.

About the Author

Jacqueline L. Scheier, D.O.

Specializing in family medicine, Dr. Scheier strives to work with patients in obtaining their short-term and long-term health goals. She works to gain their trust through open and honest conversation in assisting them to achieve these goals.

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Scheier, please call 484-446-3660.

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