Sore eyes, a runny nose, and a cough – could this be hay fever or is it just a cold?  It can be hard to tell the difference between the two, but before you can treat the problem, you need to know what’s really behind your symptoms. What are some common symptoms of hay fever, and how do they differ from other conditions?

What causes hay fever?

Hay fever, also known as allergic rhinitis, is your body’s reaction to pollen.

In some people, the body mistakes pollen for a threat and the immune system jumps into action. It releases antibodies, which cause the swelling and inflammation in your blood vessels that trigger the common symptoms of hay fever.

Pollen is a fine powdery substance found in grass, weeds, and trees. The type of pollen you are allergic to and the time of year will determine when you get hay fever.

  • Tree pollens – March to May
  • Grass pollens – May to July
  • Weed pollens – June to September

Around 80% of those with hay fever suffer from an allergy to grass pollen in the height of summer – commonly referred to as hay fever season1.

The symptoms of hay fever

Though there are differences between people, the most commonly reported symptoms of hay fever include:

  • itchy throat
  • blocked or runny nose
  • red, itchy eyes
  • sneezing and coughing

Asthma sufferers are also likely to suffer from a tight chest, shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing. If you suffer from asthma, make sure you carry both your inhalers with you in case your hay fever should trigger an attack.

Severe cases of hay fever can leave you feeling ill, and make you question whether you’ve simply got hay fever, a cold, or even Covid-19. Typically, hay fever lasts longer than a cold, but if you’re worried about your symptoms, talk to your pharmacist.

How to tell hay fever from Covid-19

The symptoms of hay fever and Covid-19 are very similar – it can be difficult to tell the two apart. A loss of smell, tiredness, a headache, and a shortness of breath, are all associated with both hay fever and Covid-19.

Those who are familiar with hay fever can easily identify the symptoms, particularly if they suffer from them every year. But some people have never had hay fever before – in fact, one in five people develop hay fever after the age of 202.

If it’s the first time you have had an allergic reaction to pollen, then you may wonder what is causing your symptoms. If you lose your sense of smell or taste, develop a fever, or a new, continuous cough, then you must contact the NHS helpline and follow the guidance on Covid-19.

To stop the spread of infection, it is important that you do not visit your GP or pharmacist. Call them on the phone, and only go in if you are asked to.

Are allergies a growing problem?

Some experts believe that allergic rhinitis is a widespread problem that is increasing in severity. Allergy UK reports that the UK has the highest prevalence of allergic conditions in the world with over 20% of the population affected by some type of allergy3.

Pollen Allergy

The number of people living with an allergy increases by 5% every year in the UK4. But though it may be a growing problem, hay fever is treatable. Prescription medication, over-the-counter remedies, and simple lifestyle changes can all help.

How to treat hay fever at home

The most effective way to treat hay fever is to limit your exposure to pollen. Try to stay indoors, particularly when the pollen count is high during spring and summer.

If you do go out, take the following precautions:

  • check the pollen forecast first
  • wear wraparound sunglasses to protect your eyes
  • put Vaseline around your nostrils to catch pollen
  • shower when you return and wash your clothes

Try to avoid bringing anything that might contain pollen back into your house. Keep your doors and windows closed, and avoid drying your clothes outside.

Cleaning regularly with a damp cloth and using a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter can help to keep out pollen, dust mites, bacteria, and dirt.

Allergy medication to treat hay fever

There are three types of hay fever treatments – antihistamines, nasal sprays, and eye drops.


Antihistamines prevent the symptoms of hay fever by blocking the natural hormone, histamine, which causes swelling. These tablets are safe enough to use everyday without any nasty side effects, but be aware, some antihistamines cause drowsiness.

For a non-drowsy alternative, try cetirizine or Fexofenadine. One tablet provides relief for up to 24 hours to alleviate coughing, sneezing, red itchy eyes, and a blocked nose.

Nasal sprays

Nasal sprays, like Mometasone, contain steroids to reduce inflammation in the nose.

We recommend starting treatment two to three weeks ahead of the pollen seasons for optimum relief from sneezing, itching, and a blocked or runny nose.

Eye drops

Used three to four times a day in small amounts, eye drops like Optrex Hay Fever Relief, can help to soothe tired, sore, red eyes.

When to seek help for hay fever

If you have hay fever, you are four times more likely to suffer from asthma, eczema, or a food allergy. Asthma and hay fever affect the respiratory system and without the proper treatment, they can affect your breathing. If you have been prescribed an inhaler, make sure you carry it with you at all times in case of a pollen attack.

Asthma symptoms and hay fever can affect your quality of life, but with the right treatment, there is no reason that you can’t enjoy the summer months. Speak to your GP or pharmacist for advice on what to do next.

Although all of our content is written and reviewed by healthcare professionals, it should not be substituted for or used as medical advice. If you have any questions about your health, please speak to your doctor.

Authored Aug 19, 2021 by Joseph Issac, MPharm
Reviewed Aug 19, 2021 by Prabjeet Saundh, MPharm