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Allergies and Hayfever

Hay fever or cold? How to tell them apart

Phil Day: Superintendent Pharmacist | minute read

It can be hard to tell if you have hay fever or a cold, especially as we go into hay fever season. Hay fever season is typically from late March to September, when the pollen count is at its highest. However, seasonal colds are also prevalent and with similar symptoms, it can be hard to know which condition you’re experiencing.

Common symptoms of each can include a runny or blocked nose, sneezing, headaches, and fatigue. Because of these similarities, it’s easy to mix up allergies with the common cold, especially if you have had hay fever in the past. While hay fever and colds share symptoms, the treatments are different. Let’s look at how you can tell the two apart, and how to treat your symptoms once you know the root cause.

What is hay fever?

Hay fever is a type of allergy. It’s caused by an allergic reaction to flower pollen or grass. It occurs when the body creates a chemical called histamine after encountering pollen. Histamines cause swelling, which in turn cause most of the common hay fever symptoms. These include:

●      Runny or blocked nose

●      Itchy eyes

●      Dry throat or a cough

●      Dry, itchy skin

●      Fatigue

Symptoms will vary from person to person, and you might find that no two hay fever episodes are the same. You may also find that your symptoms can change as you get older. While a lot of people develop hay fever in childhood, it can also occur for the first time in adulthood. This can make it hard to diagnose your symptoms.

What is a cold?

The common cold is caused by a virus. Most of us will catch a cold multiple times during our lives, usually quickly recovering after a few days of feeling unwell. Treatment for a cold is focused on relieving symptoms and reducing any discomfort they cause. Typical symptoms include:

●      Sneezing

●      Runny or blocked nose

●      Fatigue

●      A cough or dry throat

●      Fever

●      Headache


These typically go away on their own, but it can be advisable to treat cold symptoms with suitable medicines to make them more manageable.

Different cold viruses can cause slightly different symptoms. This makes it harder to work out whether the symptoms are a cold or hay fever. However, if someone in your household also has a cold and you both have similar symptoms, it’s reasonable to assume you’re both experiencing the same virus.

What is the difference between hay fever and a cold?

Here’s a breakdown of the key similarities and differences between these two conditions to help you work out which treatments are likely to be most effective.

Hay feverCold
When can you get it?Typically, between late March and September in the UK.Any time of year, but more often from late autumn to early spring.
How long does it last?As long as you are exposed to enough pollen. This can be weeks or months depending on how severe your hay fever is.Typically between one to two weeks, though this may be longer in people with other health conditions.
What are the symptoms?Runny / blocked nose Sneezing Cough Fatigue Itchy, red, or watery eyes Itchy throat, mouth, nose, and ears Loss of smell Pain around temples and foreheadRunny / blocked nose Sneezing Cough Fatigue Fever Headache Muscle ache Loss of taste and smell A sore throat Pressure in your ears and face

How to treat hay fever

The main treatment for hay fever is antihistamines. These medications stop the histamines in your body from causing swelling and itching. It’s recommended you take them before you are exposed to pollen or grass to make sure that the medication has time to work. However, if you have already been exposed to pollen, you can still take an antihistamine to get some relief from symptoms. If you live with allergies, consider keeping some antihistamine medication with you during hay fever season.

Histamines come in drowsy and non-drowsy antihistamine tablet forms. These tablets can be effective at easing generalised hay fever symptoms. Some antihistamines also come as liquid capsules, which can help if you have trouble swallowing solid tablets.

If your hay fever reactions are particularly bad in a certain area of your body, you can find antihistamines in a wide range of other forms to target specific areas, such as:

●      Hay fever eye drops for itchy, red or watery eyes

●      Nasal sprays for a blocked nose

Some targeted medicines can also be used alongside antihistamine tablets, but it is important to check the medicine information sheet or ask a pharmacist before you combine medications.

There are also allergy wipes and tissues and specially formulated children’s hay fever medications too.

How to treat a cold

The primary way to treat a cold is to rest and try to avoid over-exertion while your body fights off the infection. This is because simple viral infections like the common cold cannot be cured with medication.

Your body will use more energy to fight off the cold, so you may find that you are more tired than usual. This is why bed rest is recommended. However, there are also some medications you can get to help provide relief from cold symptoms, such as:

●      Cold medicines to help with muscle aches, headaches and a blocked nose

●      Sinus relief for blocked nose and sinus fullness

●      Sore throat lozenges to soothe the throat

Read the information leaflet of your medicine before taking it. Many cold and flu medications contain paracetamol, which you need to be aware of if taking other pain relief alongside cold and flu medicine. Some cold medicines also contain caffeine which you may want to avoid if you’re trying to get plenty of rest.

 Children’s cold medicine is available to help ease symptoms in infants. If you’re unsure what’s suitable for your little one, speak to your pharmacist or health visitor if you have one.

Antibiotics do not cure colds. Rest and over the counter cough and cold remedies are recommended.  If your cold symptoms haven’t cleared up after three weeks, they are getting worse, or you have shortness of breath, chest pain or a very high temperature we’d advise seeking medical advice.

As well as rest and medicine if needed, drink plenty of fluids such as water or squash to make sure that you stay hydrated. Staying hydrated will help your body better fight off a cold.


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