Moms

Ask: Emergency room or urgent care?

Dr. Mike Steiner is a pediatrician in the department of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at UNC and North Carolina Childrenâ™s Hospital.
Dr. Mike Steiner is a pediatrician in the department of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at UNC and North Carolina Childrenâ™s Hospital.

Q. When my child is sick at night or on a holiday, how do I know where to take him? There's an emergency room and an urgent care center nearby, but I don't know who handles what. Can you help?

A. Making medical decisions when your child’s doctors office is closed can be a source of anxiety for parents. Most primary care doctors have on-call systems where someone is available to talk with you over the phone, even when the office is closed. Many offices use a nurse to answer initial questions, and these nurses work from a series of guidelines that are published and used nationally. These guidelines for phone questions have been proven to give good answers and be safe.

However, sometimes you can’t get access to those services, or there are illnesses or injuries that need care urgently while the office is not open. For true emergencies like seizures, fevers in newborn babies or trouble breathing, the best place to take your child is the emergency room. We are lucky in the Triangle to have multiple emergency rooms with specially trained doctors and staff who specifically work with children who have serious acute illnesses. I suggest using one of those facilities if you have time to get to one of those locations.

For things that need to be addressed before the doctor’s office is open, but don’t seem like true emergencies, the nearest urgent care center is a good option. Examples of this might be ear pain or possible broken bones. Most of these centers are staffed with doctors or nurse practitioners who can care for a wide variety of patients. 

For the majority of illnesses or problems, your regular doctor is the best place to seek care. Unless there is a true life-threatening emergency, try to call your doctor’s office first, and then follow any directions they provide either during or after office hours. If you go to the ED or urgent care, be sure to call your regular doctor’s office the next day it is open to let them know where you went so they can get the medical records.

If you have a question about your child's health or happiness, ask Dr. Steiner or any of our experts by sending email to mom2mom@newsobserver.com.


Dr. Mike Steiner is a pediatrician in the department of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at UNC and North Carolina Children’s Hospital, a group of health-care professionals dedicated to improving the health of children and adolescents through clinical care, research, education and advocacy. The group includes over 25 physicians, practitioners, nurses and other health-care professionals. We supervise the care of children with general medical problems at N.C. Children’s Hospital, including the newborn nursery, primary care clinic and a complex care and diagnostic clinic that also sees patients at the N.C. Children’s Specialty Clinic located on the Rex Healthcare campus in Raleigh.
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