Is it hay fever, COVID-19 or a cold? Spot the telltale signs

27th April, 2022 • 9 min read

Hay fever (allergic rhinitis) is the allergy to pollen that literally gets up your nose. It can give you a runny and blocked nose, itchy, watery eyes, and can also make you sneeze and cough.

People who get

hay fever
will be all too familiar with these symptoms as the ‘season’ starts. Exactly when this is depends on your trigger – it can be as early as spring, when pollinating plants, trees and grasses release airborne allergens, and last until September.

A very common allergy, hay fever affects around 1 in 4 people in the UK.

Confusingly though, hay fever symptoms are similar to those of a cold or COVID-19 (coronavirus), making it hard to tell them apart.

What you don’t want is to misdiagnose a cold or coronavirus, thinking it’s your regular hay fever and end up missing out on the right treatment to get you back on track as soon as possible. If it turns out your non-contagious ‘hay fever’ symptoms are actually a contagious cold or coronavirus, staying home will stop you spreading the virus.

Read on for ways to tell whether you have hay fever, a contagious cold or coronavirus.

Common hay fever symptoms

Hay fever is caused by allergens that irritate the nasal lining, which then becomes inflamed, meaning your nose can feel blocked or runny, or both.

Another warning sign that you have hay fever is itchy, watery eyes. Irritated eyes are a common problem – around a fifth of adults with hay fever get seasonal allergic conjunctivitis. It is caused by allergens that land on the surface of the eye; these make your eyelids puffy and the whites swell, become red and bulge. Some people also get dark circles under their eyes.

Although seasonal allergic conjunctivitis doesn’t cause long-term harm to your sight, it can be very uncomfortable and needs to be treated by eye drops containing antihistamines.

Other signs of hay fever are a dry, itchy throat and tickly cough that can come and go – it might last longer than two weeks and ease when you’re not exposed to the allergen or when you have treated your symptoms with antihistamines or decongestants.

Hay fever symptoms can change at different times of the day. Often, hay fever symptoms get worse when pollen counts are higher in the afternoon and evening as more flowers open and release pollen (a high pollen count means more than 50 grains of pollen in every cubic metre of air). On rainy days, hay fever symptoms will often ease as pollen is washed away, and symptoms often get better if you have been indoors.

Check out the clear signs you have hay fever, below, as well as the symptoms that cross over with a cold and coronavirus:

Key indicators you have hay fever include:

  • itchy, red, puffy or watery eyes (allergic conjunctivitis)
  • tickly cough and sneezing, that lasts for longer than 2 weeks or comes and goes seasonally
  • clear mucus from a runny nose
  • itchy nose, throat mouth and ears

The crossover symptoms, also common with colds and coronavirus, are:

  • sore throat
  • feeling tired and weak
  • headaches
  • loss or change in smell and/or taste

The best way to manage your hay fever

Find out ways to manage your hay fever symptoms through

self-care
, such as staying indoors in the late afternoon and early evening when pollen counts are highest.

You can ease symptoms with

antihistamines
to stop allergic reactions, available from your pharmacy or supermarket, or nasal steroid sprays for inflammation and swelling – these are available from your doctor or pharmacist.

If your symptoms are severe, you may be offered immunotherapy treatment before the next hay fever season starts.

Allergic rhinitis has trebled in the last 20 years, and although it can start at any age, most people first notice symptoms in childhood or as a young adult. How bad your symptoms are can vary throughout your life - some people go through periods with no symptoms at all.

If you’ve never had hay fever before but now have the symptoms above, speak to a pharmacist or doctor – they might suggest a trial of hay fever medicines, or a skin prick test if they’re not sure what’s causing your symptoms.

Common symptoms of a cold

Unlike hay fever, cold symptoms come on gradually and are more short lived. The key symptoms of a cold are sneezing, a stuffy or blocked nose and sore throat that can last between 1 to 2 weeks. Cold symptoms don’t, in general, vary throughout the day and aren’t affected by the weather.

Key indicators you have a cold include:

  • raised temperature
  • body aches and pains
  • feeling generally unwell
  • runny or blocked nose, with lots of greenish/yellow mucus, that doesn’t come and go during the day

The crossover symptoms, also common to hay fever and coronavirus are:

  • itchy nose
  • sneezing
  • sore throat
  • tickly cough
  • feeling tired and weak
  • a loss of taste, and smell

The best way to manage your cold symptoms

Find out ways to help ease your cold symptoms at home through

self-care
such as staying at home and getting plenty of rest and sleep.

Keep warm and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. You can gargle salt water to soothe a sore throat, although this is not suitable for children.

You can also get cough and cold medication from a pharmacy or supermarket to relieve aches and pains, and to help with a blocked nose.

Common symptoms of COVID-19

There are several types of COVID-19, with symptoms varying between each strain and from person to person.

What sometimes sets coronavirus apart from hay fever and colds is a high temperature (which makes you feel hot to the touch on your chest or back). While colds can cause a mild fever, they don't usually cause a very high temperature which coronavirus can do. And hay fever doesn't cause a fever at all. You may also develop a new continuous, usually, dry cough. This means coughing for longer than an hour, or 3 or more coughing episodes in 24 hours.

A loss or change of smell (anosmia) can be another sign you have coronavirus. Previously one of the ‘traditional’ COVID-19 symptoms, research shows anosmia is now much less common, ranking 6th in the list of the most common symptoms of coronavirus (for those who are double vaccinated). However, one in five people still experience it.

Other newer coronavirus symptoms are feeling or being sick, losing your appetite and having diarrhoea.

COVID-19 can make you have trouble breathing but hay fever can be associated with allergic asthma, causing you to feel short of breath and wheezy. If you’re feeling wheezy or short of breath and your usual asthma treatment is not working – or you don’t normally get breathing symptoms with your hayfever – you should always see a doctor urgently and take a test for COVID-19, especially if you have any of the other symptoms of COVID-19.

Key indicators that you have coronavirus include:

  • high temperature (fever) or shivering
  • a persistent cough
  • feeling very tired (fatigue)
  • passing loose, watery poos (diarrhoea)
  • feeling sick (nausea) or being sick (vomiting)
  • loss of, or change. to your sense of taste or smell
  • shortness of breath
  • discolouration of your fingers or toes
  • loss of appetite

The crossover symptoms, also common to hay fever and a cold, are:

  • sneezing
  • sore throat
  • headaches
  • body aches and pains
  • a rash – hay fever can be linked to eczema and urticaria rashes

The best way to manage your coronavirus symptoms:

Current advice if you test positive for COVID-19 is to stay at home and avoid seeing people for 5 days. You should stay away from people who are at a greater risk of of serious illness if they catch coronavirus for 10 days, even if they’ve been vaccinated.

Get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluid to keep you hydrated. If you have a fever, headache or aches and pains, taking simple painkillers can help.

Read more advice about

treatment for coronavirus
.

How can you tell what you have?

With so many crossover symptoms, it can be hard to know for sure if you have hayfever, a cold or coronavirus.

If you usually suffer from hay fever and your symptoms have got worse or you’re not responding to your usual treatments, contact your doctor or see a pharmacist, as you could be suffering from a cold or coronavirus.

It’s possible your hay fever is masking the symptoms of a cold or coronavirus. If you’re unsure, do a lateral flow test.

Key signs to look for are:

  • your hay fever symptoms persist all day, even when pollen counts are low or you’ve been indoors
  • symptoms are just as bad in wet weather, when they should ease if it’s hayfever
  • you don’t improve after taking a preventative
    antihistamine

Bear in mind also that you could get especially unlucky and have two conditions at the same time. So, if you usually have hay fever but you’re also getting other symptoms like green snot or sickness or diarrhoea, always check in with your pharmacist.

Once you have the all clear for coronavirus or a cold, you can reassure colleagues and friends that your sneezing and runny nose are down to your annual hay fever rather than something contagious.

Read more about how long it takes

symptoms to show for COVID-19
, what it means to be asymptomatic, how to improve your symptoms at home and when you might need to see a doctor.

Doctor’s tip

Dr Adiele Hoffman
says:

'If you do think you have hay fever rather than a cold, trying some treatment along with avoiding allergens (ie staying indoors when the pollen count is high) can be a helpful way of seeing if you're correct. Antihistamines and avoiding pollen won't usually help much with a cold but you should notice a quick response if hay fever is the culprit.'

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.