Is This an Emergency? Choosing Urgent Care or the ED

When your child is sick or injured, it can be difficult to tell how serious it is. Deciding whether to take your child to urgent care or the emergency department for treatment can be just as difficult. Whatever the case, it’s important for kids to get pediatric care for any medical need, so your child will see a board-certified pediatrician or advanced-level provider, such as a nurse practitioner or physician assistant, at any Children’s Hospital Colorado facility. But choosing wisely allows your child to receive the best care possible and ensures emergency resources are dedicated to those who need them most.

Use the guide below to help you make an informed decision, or talk to a pediatric nurse at our free ParentSmart Healthline™ any time, 24/7.

Should I go to urgent care or the emergency department just for a COVID test?

Neither. Using one of the state’s many COVID-19 testing centers frees up emergency departments for serious medical emergencies. First, try calling your primary care provider. Many are now offering COVID-19 testing in their offices. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also has more than 80 free COVID-19 testing centers around the state. These sites do not require identification, insurance or a doctor’s note.

Children’s Colorado also offers COVID-19 testing for kids, teens and their caregivers in the Denver Metro and Colorado Springs areas by appointment only, with a doctor’s referral.

When to choose emergency departments

Emergency departments at Children’s Colorado are equipped to handle the most serious injuries and illnesses. Because they’re located in hospitals, emergency departments accept ambulances (they may even have a helipad) and can provide an inpatient bed if necessary.

As a rule of thumb, if you believe your child needs immediate attention or you think their injury or illness could threaten their life, call 911 or take them to the nearest emergency department. Children’s Colorado’s emergency locations are staffed 24/7 with doctors who are board certified in pediatric emergency medicine.

Call 911 or head straight to the emergency room if:

  • Your child’s skin or lips have turned blue
  • Your child is unresponsive or difficult to wake up
  • Your child is having difficulty breathing (look for signs of the chest retracting and lips and/or fingers turning blue)

Other reasons to head to the emergency room include:

  • Severe allergic reactions that involve vomiting or difficulty breathing
  • Asthma attacks where trouble breathing persists after treatment
  • Broken bones protruding from the skin or with obvious deformity
  • Serious chemical, electrical or acid burns, including any to the eyes
  • Concern for neglect or physical/sexual abuse
  • Cuts that won’t stop bleeding
  • Dehydration or severe fluid loss
  • Eye pain from a blunt or penetrating injury
  • Fever in babies under 60 days old
  • Head injury with persistent vomiting or changes in behavior and alertness
  • Ingestions (Call Poison Control first at 1-800-222-1222)
  • Severe lethargy
  • Mental health crisis such as someone who may be suicidal, homicidal or a threat to themselves or others
  • Migraines and headaches that include blurred vision, difficulty speaking, numbness, tingling or paralysis
  • Numbness, paralysis, weakness or vision loss
  • Object stuck in skin or eye (do not remove the object)
  • Seizures that won’t stop or include a change in behavior
  • Slurred speech or trouble speaking
  • Stomach pain, severe or on the lower right side
  • Swallowed button batteries or other objects that make breathing difficult

When to choose urgent care

Urgent care treats everyday injuries and illnesses when your doctor is not available. If it’s after hours and your child is experiencing one of the following minor symptoms, urgent care is a good choice.

  • Seasonal allergies or allergic reactions that don’t involve breathing difficulties
  • Bloody nose
  • Broken bones, fractures or sprains without deformity
  • Minor burns or cuts that may require stitches
  • Colds with minor congestion and stuffiness
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Ear pain or tugging
  • Fainting
  • Fever in babies over 60 days old
  • Mild headaches or stomach pain
  • Head injuries without a change in behavior
  • Insect bite or sting
  • Object stuck in nose or ear
  • Pain when peeing
  • Pink eye
  • Rash or skin irritation
  • Seizures that stop on their own and do not include a lasting change in behavior
  • Sinus infection
  • Sore throat
  • Swallowed objects that do not cause breathing difficulties
  • Vomiting

Is there a difference in cost?

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

Long before an emergency happens, it’s important to know your benefits — including the difference between your co-pays 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. Children’s Colorado’s patient cost estimate team may also be able to help. We accept all insurance providers available in Colorado.

Learn more about choosing between urgent and emergency care, finding pediatric care near you, using our ParentSmart HealthLine and more in the full article, Urgent vs. Emergency Care: How to Choose, at