Commentary by Aaron Ashabraner, M.D.
It’s the time of year when the first sign of a stuffy nose, cough or fever leaves us wondering if we have a cold or the flu. While the common cold and seasonal flu have some of the same symptoms, they are very different illnesses in terms of duration and severity. A cold is much milder, and while a cold can affect you for a few days, the flu is likely to cause lingering illness that can last up to two weeks or longer.
The first sign of a cold is often a sore throat. Symptoms that follow can include runny nose, congestion and cough. Adults generally do not run a fever with a cold, but children with colds may experience fever. People can expect to recover from a cold within a week.
Flu symptoms are likely to come on suddenly and are typically more severe. Common signs of flu include sore throat, fever, headache, muscle and body aches or soreness, congestion and cough. The flu can also cause vomiting and diarrhea in some cases. While flu symptoms usually subside in two to five days, some people may feel weak and run down for several more days. If not effectively treated the flu can cause complications, such as pneumonia and hospitalization, especially in older adults and people with heart and lung conditions.
Fever is the symptom that normally sets flu apart from a cold. It’s very unlikely that a cold will cause a fever, and if it does, it will be low-grade (not higher than 101 degrees). With the flu, fever is usually one of the first symptoms. Body and muscle aches also are more characteristic of the flu.
When to see a physician:
If you become ill with a cold or the flu, it’s important to know when to call your primary care doctor. Seek medical care if you experience symptoms such as persistent fever, cough or headache, or painful swallowing (which may indicate strep throat). Talk to your doctor about the seasonal flu vaccine. It’s the best way to help prevent the flu.
Aaron Ashabraner, MD, specializes in family medicine. He is a guest columnist located at IU Health Physicians Primary Care, 11725 N. Illinois St., Suite 595, Carmel. He can be reached by calling the office at 688-5522.