Your child fell while running. He can't put any weight on his rapidly swelling ankle, and he is sweating and crying in pain. Should you head to the emergency department or urgent care?

If you've been in a similar situation and wondered which option is better, you are not alone. Although urgent care units have been around for decades, many people are confused about when to use them.

Dr. Graham King, a family medicine physician in Mankato, spelled out a few differences between emergency departments and urgent care clinics:

Severity of health problems

An emergency department treats life- or limb-threatening health conditions in people of all ages. It is the best option when you require immediate medical attention.

Urgent care is the middle ground between your primary care provider and the emergency department. If you have a minor illness or injury that can't wait until tomorrow, urgent care is the way to go. Also, it is a good option if you have illnesses or injuries without other symptoms, or if you do not have other underlying health conditions.

Hours and staff

Emergency departments are staffed 24/7 with physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners and nurses trained in delivering emergency care. The team has access to expert providers in advanced specialties such as cardiology, neurology and orthopedics. Emergency departments also have the imaging and laboratory resources needed to diagnose and deliver care for severe and life-threatening situations.

Urgent care clinics have set hours and an established list of conditions treated. Typically, they are staffed with physician assistants, nurse practitioners and nurses, although some have physicians on staff, as well. Urgent care providers can order basic labs and imaging tests, such as X-rays, to help them provide diagnoses and develop treatment plans.

Other factors

Urgent care clinics often are less expensive and have shorter wait times than emergency departments.

Here are examples of types of conditions treated in urgent care clinics and emergency departments.

Urgent care: Back or muscle pain; bronchitis; cuts and minor burns; diarrhea; earache; skin conditions; sprains or joint pain; upper respiratory infection; urinary tract infections, and vomiting.

Emergency department: Chest pain or pressure; compound fracture (bone that protrudes through the skin); head injuries, pneumonia; seizures; severe abdominal pain; shortness of breath; sudden, severe headache, or paralysis or weakness, and uncontrolled bleeding.