Is it a Cold or Flu?

Q & A with Neil Padgett, M.D., MPH

Q:  How can I tell if I have a cold or the flu?

A:  While the common cold and flu can have similar symptoms, they are very different illnesses in terms of duration and severity.

The first sign of a cold is often a sore throat.  Symptoms that follow can include a runny nose, congestion or a cough.  A cold usually lasts a few days to a week.  Adults don’t often run a fever with a cold, but children may.  Many over the counter medications can help treat cold symptoms.

Flu symptoms are likely to come on suddenly and be more severe.  Common signs of flu are a sore throat, fever, headache, muscle and body aches, congestion and cough.  Some people get vomiting and diarrhea.  While the flu can last a week or longer, it can also result in more serious illnesses like pneumonia, particularly in the elderly or very young.

Q:  When should I see a doctor?

A:  If you experience persistent coughing, fever, congestion, headache or painful swallowing (which may indicate strep throat), you should talk with your primary care provider.  In general, if your symptoms aren’t getting better- or start getting worse- call your doctor.

Q:  How can I prevent getting colds or the flu?

A:  Wash your hands often and avoid close contact with others who have a cold or flu.  A cold is contagious during the first three days, while a person with the flu can be contagious a day before feeling the symptoms and up to 5-7 days after getting sick.  We also recommend that our patients get an annual flu vaccine.  If you haven’t had one this season, it is still not too late!

Neil Padgett, M.D., MPHDr. Padgett is a Maryland Primary Care Physicians, LLC partner and is certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine. He received his medical degree from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 1984 and completed his residency program in Internal Medicine at University of Maryland Medical Center in 1987.