Children's Hospital Colorado

Urgent vs. Emergency Care: How to Choose

When your child becomes sick or injured, it can be difficult to tell how serious it is. You may not know if you should choose an emergency department or urgent care.

We’ve outlined the times when you should seek urgent or emergency care, the differences between them and how you can best prepare for the next time your child gets sick or injured.

Download the guide

What should I do first?

If you are not concerned for a life-threating emergency and unsure about where to go, Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Alison Brent, MD, advises parents to first call their child's primary care provider (PCP). Your PCP should be able to advise you on the best course of action.

If you believe your child needs immediate attention and you have concerns for a life-threatening emergency, call 911.

(These are guidelines; if at any point you believe your child needs immediate emergency care, take him or her to the closest emergency department or call 911):

  • Your child's skin or lips have turned blue
  • Your child is unresponsive or difficult to arouse
  • Your child is having serious trouble breathing (chest retracts and lips and/or fingers turn blue)
  • Your child has sustained a head injury with continuous vomiting or changes in level of alertness
  • Your child has ingested something you believe is dangerous: call Poison Control first. They can oftentimes direct you where to go and might be able to alert the urgent care facility or emergency room of your arrival. Call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.
  • Your child has suffered a blunt or penetrating injury to the eye and has eye pain
  • An object is stuck in your child (do not pull it out)
  • Numbness, tingling, or paralysis, or weakness on one side of the body
  • Unexplained slurred speech or difficulty speaking
  • Severe headache or migraine along with blurred vision, difficulty speaking, numbness, tingling or paralysis
  • Your child has swallowed something AND has difficulty breathing (call 911)
  • Seizures that won't stop
  • Your child has a fracture and the bone is sticking out
  • Anyone under the age of 18 who may be suicidal, homicidal or felt to be a threat to themselves or others
  • Anyone under the age of 18 who may have experienced acute sexual abuse or neglect

(These are guidelines; if at any point you believe your child needs immediate emergency care, take him or her to the emergency room or call 911):

  • Anything that does not appear to be life threatening
  • Any routine acute illness or injury
  • Simple lacerations
  • Your child has sustained a head injury but is acting normally and not vomiting
  • Your child has swallowed something and is not have difficulty breathing
  • Normal headaches or migraines (without numbness, tingling or weakness)
  • Sprains, strains and fractures (unless bone is sticking out)
  • If your child has ingested something you believe is dangerous, call Poison Control first. They can oftentimes direct you where to go and might be able to alert the urgent care facility or emergency department of your arrival. Call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.

Children's Colorado's urgent care facilities are all staffed with board-certified pediatricians. They are well equipped to determine if your child is too ill for urgent care, in which case they will stabilize them and send him or her to a Children's Colorado emergency department immediately.

Additionally, you can call Children's Colorado's ParentSmart Healthline™ at 720-777-0123 to speak with a registered nurse 24/7 who can help guide you to the best location. Children's Colorado also has a free mobile app with helpful resources on assessing your child's illness.

Whether you take your child to a Children's Colorado emergency department or urgent care facility, your child will see a board-certified pediatrician or advanced level provider (nurse practitioner or physician assistant).

Our emergency locations are staffed sites 24 hours a day, seven days a week with physicians who are board certified and/or eligible in pediatric emergency medicine.

Find our urgent care locations.

Find our emergency locations.

Children are not small adults. Even in an urgent or emergency situation, pediatric expertise matters. Here’s why:

Pediatric emergency medicine doctors are specially trained to care for kids

Pediatric emergency medicine physicians have three additional years of pediatric emergency training compared to general emergency medicine physicians and pediatricians. In addition to making kids (and their families) feel more secure and at ease in emergency situations, their skills in pediatrics allow pediatric emergency medicine physicians to be more comfortable with both the common and not-so-common pediatric emergency medical conditions. This allows them to make the proper diagnosis faster and with fewer and less invasive tests, which can make the process quicker and usually less painful.

Pediatric centers have kid-sized equipment and tests

Children are developing and changing every day. They have faster heart rates, growing bones and smaller airways. Kids also respond to medical tests, drugs and treatments differently, making specialized equipment and testing critical. While other emergency departments have equipment needed to diagnose and treat the general adult population, Children’s Colorado has specialized equipment that is designed for children and teens – and we have teams who know how to use it.

Learn other ways that children’s medical needs are different.

Learn why pediatric radiation is safer for kids.

And unlike other hospitals and urgent care locations, we partner with your child's pediatrician or your family doctor to make sure we work together and communicate about your child’s care.

Emergency Care
Emergency departments at Children's Colorado are equipped to handle the most serious injuries and illnesses. (Children's Hospital Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus is the only dedicated pediatric regional trauma center in our seven-state region, handling the most challenging emergencies.)

Emergency departments are located in hospitals, which means they accept ambulances, may have a helipad, and can admit your child to an inpatient bed within the hospital, if that becomes necessary. In general, it can be more expensive to go to the emergency department. 

Urgent Care
There is no difference in the skill level of physicians staffing Children's Colorado's urgent care facilities and some of our emergency departments. We prepare our urgent care facilities to help kids who need medical attention for non-life-threatening conditions, like an ear infection or broken arm. 

Going to urgent care in a non-emergency situation can help ensure that our emergency departments do not become overwhelmed with patients who do not need as many emergency resources. This can help all kids get the level of care they need, faster.

Whether you go to a Children's Colorado urgent care or emergency department, it will be specially equipped to handle the unique needs of your child.

  • When you arrive at Children's Colorado, a triage nurse will assess your child's illness. Then you will go to the waiting room until the care team is ready to see your child.
  • The providers at our facilities always see the sickest patients first. If the triage nurse believes that your child may have a life-threatening condition, the care team will see him or her immediately. If another child arrives after you, but sees a care team before you, it means his or her illness is more serious. However, Children's Colorado will always try to accommodate everybody in a timely fashion.
  • Patients who come to a Children's Colorado emergency department or urgent care may not always receive a prescription for medication; the physician will advise on a care plan that will most effectively heal your child, which may or may not include medication.
  • Children's Colorado has many kid-friendly medicines for sedation and pain. Our pediatric experts also know about the many different ways to give the medications to make the delivery of medication or procedure less painful (such as by the mouth, through the nose, in the vein, or by using numbing creams).
  • If your child takes a prescription medication, try to bring the bottle(s) with you to help the team better understand the type and dose of medicine.
  • If you are concerned that your child has a broken bone or may have appendicitis, do not give him or her anything to eat or drink before going to the emergency department or urgent care.

Because our emergency departments are equipped with the most high-tech, life-saving equipment, as well as a larger, supportive staff, it is usually more expensive to be seen in the emergency department.

We accept all payers (insurance providers) available in Colorado. Learn more about billing at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

Learn more about your insurance and potential costs

Many parents are concerned about the cost of taking their child to the emergency department or urgent care. To prepare, make sure you know your benefits and make sure you know the difference between your co-pay for urgent care and emergency care. If you are unsure, call your insurance company and speak with a representative who should be able to explain your benefits, costs and co-pays.

Set up Medical ID on your child’s phone in case of emergency

Did you know you can set up Medical ID on your child's smartphone to give first responders access to your child's health information in case of an emergency? Watch this video learn how to set this feature up on your kid's phone.