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Articles and Updates from Phoenix Children's

February 07, 2023
Urgent Care vs. ER vs. Pediatrician: Where to Go for Your Child’s Care
Pediatric healthcare provider and patient

Every year, viral respiratory illnesses like the common cold and seasonal flu keep kids out of school and social activities.

Most children who get sick will recover with home care, but some may need medical attention. What should you do if your child is sick, and how do you know if it’s time to call their pediatrician or go to the urgent care or emergency department (ED)?

Where to go for your child’s medical care?

Whether it’s an illness caused by RSV or an injury like a sprain, the answer may not always be clear-cut — especially when it comes to infants and young children. Knowing the major differences between a pediatrician’s office, urgent care clinic and ED and where to go based on symptoms can help.

A pediatrician is a primary care provider who is specially trained to diagnose and treat childhood illnesses and diseases. They are also trained in understanding how well your child is doing when it comes to physical, mental, social and emotional health.

“They will schedule regular appointments for your child every few months or annually, depending on your child’s age, to come in for wellness checkups to ensure your child is indeed as healthy as they can be,” explains Dr. Reina Patel, a pediatric hospitalist at Phoenix Children’s.

Urgent care centers provide care for non-life-threatening illnesses and injuries. They are open late on weeknights, weekends and holidays when typical primary care offices are closed. You should seek medical attention for your child at an urgent care when your child’s primary care provider or pediatrician is not available, and your child cannot wait for a future appointment.

“The medical staff at these facilities are able to prescribe medications, when needed, and are able to operate X-rays, perform throat or nose swabs and use urine studies to make appropriate diagnoses and treatment plans,” said Dr. Priya Prasher, a pediatric emergency medicine specialist at Phoenix Children’s.

While the demand for urgent care services have grown, not all of them may be equipped to treat babies and young children. It’s best to locate either a pediatric urgent care near you or an urgent care close by that can provide care to your child when the need arises.

Emergency departments are designed to evaluate and treat severe or potentially life-threatening illness or injury, such as a life- and limb-threatening situation like a heart attack, broken bone or traumatic injury.  They are open 24 hours, 7 days a week and have access to labs and imaging services not available outside of a hospital setting.

When should I take my child to the emergency department?

There are many conditions and situations that may warrant an ED visit. If possible, take them to a pediatric emergency room like Phoenix Children’s Hospital, which is staffed by pediatric emergency doctors and staff and have child-sized medical equipment.

Here are reasons to take your child to the ED:

  • Allergic reactions
  • Asthma attacks
  • Blurred vision or loss of vision
  • Broken bones and/or dislocated joints
  • Serious burns from fire, hot liquid, chemicals or electricity
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Concussion
  • Coughing or throwing up blood
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Disorientation or difficulty speaking
  • Fainting, loss of consciousness or unresponsive (won’t wake up)
  • Fever over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) in children younger than 2 months or with underlying conditions
  • Fever accompanied by a rash
  • Overdose of any type of medication
  • Seizures
  • Slurred speech
  • Sudden dizziness or loss of coordination
  • Sudden numbness or weakness
  • Swallow a poisonous substance, such as laundry pods
  • Traumatic head or eye injury
  • Wounds that are large, deep or gaping and/or won’t stop bleeding

When should I take my child to an urgent care?

If care cannot wait until your pediatrician’s office reopens, an urgent care can manage the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Allergic reactions that are mild
  • Animal bites
  • Back and joint pain
  • Burning when they go pee
  • Dehydration
  • Eye irritation, swelling or pain
  • Fever
  • Foreign objects in ears or nose
  • Headaches, earaches or sinus pain
  • Minor bumps, cuts, scrapes and burns
  • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
  • Pink eye
  • Respiratory illnesses
  • Sore throat
  • Sprains and strains
  • Wheezing or shortness of breath

It’s important to note that urgent care centers are not meant for chronic or ongoing issues unless your child has a flare up of symptoms. These types of issues should be seen by your child’s provider.

When should my child see their pediatrician?

If your child is sick during normal business hours (and even sometimes after-hours), your child’s primary care provider should be your first choice as they can see you for almost all medical problems.

“Your child’s doctor knows your child and family best, and they’ll know whether an urgent care or emergency department is a better option,” Dr. Patel said. “Some practices have on-call physician or a nurse advice lines as well as online portals, so they can help guide you and walk you through what to do and what to look for based on your child’s symptoms.”

Your child’s provider can manage the following symptoms:

  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Burning when they pee
  • Checkups and well-child visits
  • Ear infections
  • Fevers for two to three days in a row for older children (if under two months, seek emergency care)
  • Headaches, earaches or sinus pain
  • Immunizations and shots
  • Injuries with mild or minor pain
  • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
  • Pink eye
  • Rashes
  • Respiratory illnesses and viruses including things like the common cold, croup, flu, bronchiolitis, pneumonia and RSV
  • Sore throat
  • School and sports physicals
  • Urinary issues


Unfortunately, your child may get sick or injured from time to time. With the triple threat of several respiratory viruses, you may be especially concerned.

Knowing how to recognize your child’s symptoms and whether to go to the urgent care, ED or your child’s provider can help a caregiver make an informed decision.

However, if you’re not sure if your child or adolescent should seek medical attention at Phoenix Children’s Urgent Care or Emergency Department, please call your child’s provider or call us at 602-933-KIDS (5437) for additional help and guidance.

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