Allergies, Colds, Bronchitis? It's Not So Easy to Tell the Difference

Patient Expert

A few weeks back the New York Times ran a column in their health section called "The Claim: It's a Cold. No, It's an Allergy." Guess what? Symptoms of seasonal allergies and colds overlap. The column looks to new studies to tell the actual difference; however common sense tells us the difference with or without clinical trials.

How are they different?

According to the New York Times: "The first is the onset of symptoms. Colds move more slowly, taking a day or longer to set in and gradually worsening - with symptoms like loss of appetite and headache - before subsiding after about a week and disappearing within 10 days. But allergies begin immediately. The sneezing is sudden and overwhelming, and the congestion, typically centered behind the nose, is immediate. Allergy symptoms also disappear quickly - almost as soon as the offending allergen, like pollen, is no longer around.

Then there are hallmark symptoms of each. Allergies virtually always cause itchiness in the eyes, the nose, the throat, while a cold generally does not. Telltale signs of a cold, are a fever, aches and colored mucus."

Allergy or Bronchitis?
The column was prescient for me as a few Saturdays ago, while in the country for the weekend, I felt a tickle in my throat. Actually it was lower down, a tickle in my trachea. "Must be an allergy to something blooming," I thought.

On day two, I was feeling chilled, but as I was sitting in an air conditioned room I didn't think much of it, still believing my itchy trachea was allergy-related. The itch continued, coupled with a little cough, a way my body was scratching the itch, I thought. By Tuesday night, during a theater performance the was now persistent, I was chilled and achy. This, I realized, now put me out of the allergy zone and into the "I think I'm sick" zone. By Wednesday, my cough was constant and my voice hoarse; by Thursday my cough was producing yellow mucus.

I had an upper respiratory infection.

When I looked back at the New York Times article, I saw my experience was pretty classic. To recap: With an allergy, the onset is quick, and it disappears when the allergen is removed. There are no ancillary symptoms.

With a virus, the onset is slower coupled with additional symptoms: fever (or in my case feeling chilled), aches, (yup had those), and colored mucus.

An allergy veteran myself, even I didn't immediately realize that my itchy throat, a tickle in my trachea and a little cough weren't caused by allergies. I listen to what my body tells me all of the time but even this felt like a fake-out. Allergies or cold; upper respiratory infection or something blooming? As time wore on I realized what I thought was an annoying tickle was the beginning of a viral infection, live and learn, what to look for and what the differences are.

See also:

Is it a Cold or an Allergy? Take this Assessment to Help Find Out

Common Allergy Symptoms

Symptoms of the Common Cold

Symptoms of Other Respiratory Infections