What’s Treated at Urgent Care and What’s Not?

Life happens, and sometimes it hurts—literally. At some point, most of us will twist an ankle, get an infected bug bite or deal with a child with a raging fever. When these ailments strike, it can be hard to know whether to go to the emergency department. Fortunately, an urgent care facility can treat many conditions, with shorter wait times and lower costs. But other problems, such as chest pain and suspected concussions, need to be seen in an emergency department, fast.

For a look at what can be treated at urgent care and what can’t, Linwood Watson, MD, with UNC Urgent Care, shares a log of the patients he sees on a typical day.

9 a.m.: Patients are waiting outside the clinic before we open. The first six come in and are seen by our nurses to check their vital signs and decide whose condition is most urgent.

Every patient meets with a triage nurse after check-in to have his or her vitals taken: blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen levels. These numbers help tell the medical team if someone is in immediate danger of fainting or cardiac arrest.

9:25 a.m.: Nurses determine the patient who needs to be seen immediately is a 71-year-old woman with 2½ weeks of congestion, pulse of 120 and low oxygen saturation despite not being a smoker. The nurse and patient’s daughter are worried it may be pneumonia, and I agree. I examine the patient and order a chest X-ray.

UNC Urgent Care facilities offer on-site X-ray services and usually receive a reading from a board-certified radiologist within an hour.

9:45 a.m.: I treat a preschooler with a fever. Mom says she was waiting to give the child acetaminophen or ibuprofen because she wanted me to see if he had a fever. I encourage her to give it to him if she’s ever in this situation again, so he doesn’t have to suffer unnecessarily. I check him for strep throat and the flu. Labs come back negative for both, but it looks like he has a virus.

10:05 a.m.: I treat an adult patient with sinus congestion and a cough.

Half of all visits to UNC Urgent Care facilities are for coughs and colds.

10:30 a.m.: Chest X-ray results are back on my 71-year-old patient. They confirm she has pneumonia. I meet with her and her daughter, and I prescribe medications that should help keep her out of the hospital.

10:55 a.m.: My next patient is a college student home on break who thinks a brown recluse spider bit him while he was packing. It turns out to be a painful methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) abscess that needs to be drained.

Often, suspected insect bites are actually community-acquired MRSA abscesses. MRSA is a bacterium that is resistant to antibiotics and commonly causes skin infections. UNC Urgent Care facilities treat and drain these regularly.

11:30 a.m.: I treat another patient with a sinus infection—second one of the day. We tend to see these cases very often.

12 p.m.: I call an ambulance for a 50-year-old patient showing signs of a stroke. At times like this, it’s important to remember that we treat acute conditions at urgent care. In case of emergencies, like stroke or heart attack, you should call 911 for immediate care. Luckily, we got this patient to the hospital quickly for treatment.

UNC Urgent Care facilities are not equipped to treat the following:

1. Shortness of breath

2. Weakness of extremities or slurred speech (stroke)

3. Severe stomach pain

4. Severe testicular pain and swelling

5. Allergic reactions that require an EpiPen

6. Any injury in which the patient thinks he or she may have lost consciousness

12:25 p.m.: I treat a woman who comes in on her lunch break because it burns when she urinates. I prescribe her medication to treat her urinary tract infection (UTI).

UNC Urgent Care facilities treat three to five UTIs every day at each location.

12:50 p.m.: I treat a toddler with a wrist sprain after he fell out of bed during naptime. In this case, I spend most of the time reassuring the first-time mom about how common this is and not to be hard too on herself. I give them both a Popsicle before they leave.

UNC Urgent Care facilities distribute an average of 10 Popsicles per day at each facility—some to kids, but some to help calm worried parents, too.

1:30 p.m.: A young man comes in with a newly tender cyst on his back that needs to be drained. It turns out to be a routine cyst, and the drainage alleviates much of his pain.

2:15 p.m.: A daughter brings in her father, who slipped when going to the bathroom. An X-ray shows no broken bones, but it looks like he has a bad wrist sprain.

UNC Urgent Care facilities treat three to five sprains every day at each location.

2:50 p.m.: One of our regulars, a local gardener, is back with poison ivy.

Because poison ivy can break out up to 21 days after exposure, UNC Urgent Care facilities see many patients a week after they come into contact with it.

3:10 p.m.: I treat a toddler for multiple fire ant bites after he got overzealous kicking ant mounds. I’m glad he was not severely allergic, or we would have had to call 911.

While UNC Urgent Care facilities regularly treat mild to moderate allergic reactions, if you suspect you or a loved one is having a severe allergic reaction, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

4:15 p.m.: I treat a middle schooler who twisted her ankle at gymnastics. She’ll need crutches for the next few days.

UNC Urgent Care facilities distribute one to three sets of crutches per day at each facility.

4:45 p.m.: I see another patient with a sinus infection. I prescribe medicine that should give him some much-needed relief.

5:05 p.m.: A mom brings in her son who suffered a concussion at his soccer game. As soon as I hear that he had passed out, I know we need to get him to the emergency department right away. I call an ambulance to rush him to the hospital. In general, we call an ambulance two to three times a day to make sure patients get to the right place for treatment in different cases.

If you or a loved one experiences a loss of consciousness, go to a hospital emergency department immediately.

5:45 p.m.: A woman comes in after slicing off the tip of her finger on her nondominant hand while chopping carrots. We often see cuts and injuries like this at urgent care. I stitch her up.

UNC Urgent Care facilities treat almost 20 cuts a week.

6:15 p.m.: As the evening hours set in, I see a wailing toddler with a common injury: a centimeter-long laceration to the outer eyebrow after running into a coffee table while dad was making dinner. I stitch up the cut and give him and dad a Popsicle.

7 p.m.: I treat another patient with a sinus infection and lingering cough. Again, this is one of the most common ailments we treat each day. An X-ray does not show signs of pneumonia. The medications I provide should help her.

UNC Urgent Care treats patients ages 4 months and older. With clinics across Wake County, you can find a location near you. Check wait times before you go, or use our online reservation system to reserve your spot and save you time.