man sneezing a sign of hay fever

Signs of hay fever: How to tell if you have an allergy to pollen

Has the seasonal influx of pollen got you wondering if your sneezing and runny nose are signs of hay fever? Or could it be a summer cold?

About 10 million people in England experience hay fever.1 Although an allergy to pollen is common, recognising hay fever symptoms isn’t necessarily straightforward. Sneezing, a runny nose, sore eyes, coughing – hay fever shares many symptoms with the common cold. But by not spotting the signs of hay fever, the allergy thrives unchecked, causing many to suffer for weeks unnecessarily.

Common signs of hay fever

Hay fever (sometimes called allergic rhinitis) is a common allergic reaction to pollen. When pollen comes into contact with the mouth, nose, eyes and throat of someone with the allergy, signs of hay fever develop.

Symptoms of hay fever:

  • Sneezing
  • A blocked or runny nose
  • Red, itchy or watery eyes
  • Itchy throat, mouth, nose and ears
  • Coughing
  • Loss of smell
  • Headache
  • Earache
  • Tiredness
Although it’s easy to mistake signs of hay fever for a cold, there are some important differences. Recognising these allergy-related reactions can help you to treat your symptoms appropriately.

5 differences between hay fever and a summer cold

What to look out for Hay fever Cold
Itchiness Yes No
Runny nose Clear discharge Yellow/green discharge
Duration of symptoms Can last for weeks Usually improves in a few days
Onset of symptoms Sudden Gradual
Cause of symptoms Allergic reaction Viral infection

Spotting hay fever in children

Although hay fever can start in adulthood, it frequently first develops in children or during adolescence. The problem is, some signs of the allergy are invisible to the parental eye. This makes identifying hay fever in children harder, especially if your child can’t easily explain what they’re feeling.

Looking out for behaviour that could signal they’re suffering with symptoms can help. For example, rubbing eyes, frequent sneezing while outside, a runny nose and disrupted sleep.

When is hay fever season in the UK?

To work out when peak hay fever season is for you, you’ll need to understand what type of pollen sparks your allergy. It’s common to experience hay fever between late March and September in the UK. This is when the pollen count is generally at its highest. But when exactly in this period your allergy triggers will depend on the type of pollen that’s the cause of hay fever for you.

Pollen is a very fine powder produced by trees, flowers, grasses, and weeds during their growing season. For each plant, this happens at roughly the same time each year. However, each plant, scatters pollens to a different schedule. So, the worst time of year for your hay fever symptoms depends on when the pollen count is highest for the plant that causes your allergy. In the UK, grass pollen is the most common cause of hay fever.2

The UK hay fever season split by pollen type:

  • Tree pollen – March and April
  • Grass pollen – May to July
  • Weed pollen – June to August

Why is hay fever worse on some days than others?

The weather has a big role in the level of pollen in the air and how it spreads. For example, because daylight is essential to the production of pollen, a long, sun-drenched day encourages pollen to multiply. This can lead to a surge in hay fever symptoms. Rainfall, on the other hand, leads to a reduction in the amount of pollen in the air providing respite for allergy sufferers. Changes in temperature and wind speed also lead to fluctuations in pollen levels, which can affect the intensity of your symptoms.

Does hay fever cause a cough?

Coughing is sometimes an irritation associated with hay fever. This can be triggered by ‘post-nasal drip,’ the feeling of mucus running down the back of the throat. This watery mucus causes a tickle that can lead to a hay fever cough.3

 In addition, people with asthma are also susceptible to hay fever symptoms. In these cases, pollen can trigger more intense reactions. These more severe hay fever symptoms can include coughing and wheezing.4

Is there such a thing as a hay fever rash?

A skin irritation or rash is a less common sign of hay fever. However, sometimes the appearance of raised, itchy red bumps (known as hives) is connected to a pollen allergy.  Hives occur when a pollen allergen causes high levels of histamine and other chemicals to be released into the skin. This leads to the redness, swelling and itchiness associated with a hay fever rash.5

Summary: How to tell if you have hay fever

If you’ve suffered with hay fever since childhood, the main symptoms are annoyances you’ll be all too familiar with. But if the arrival of pollen allergy symptoms is something new to you in adulthood, it’s easy to assume you must be suffering from a cold. However, recognising hay fever and identifying the type of pollen that triggers your reaction can help you to take control of your allergy. And this allows you to enjoy more of the summer outdoors.

Last updated: 9 July 2020

AllergiesHay Fever