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Have I got hay fever? Signs and symptoms

Laura Harcourt

Written byLaura Harcourt

Mother and son in outdoor park setting, cuddling with happy expressions
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. 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.

In this article, we’ll talk about what hay fever is and how to spot the symptoms of hay fever. We’ll also touch briefly on hay fever remedies, as well as some of the most common hay fever questions.

Common signs of hay fever: how to tell if you have an allergy to pollen

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.

Four phases of pollen allergy

  1. Contact happens – Pollen enters your nose. Cells in the nasal passage are sensitised, which leads to phase 2.
  2. The release of histamine – The sensitised cells trigger the production of antibodies to counteract the invading allergen. This leads to the release of histamine. The production of histamine triggers the onset of hay fever symptoms.
  3. Your body defaults to self-defence mode – Your immune system’s response is to protect, so white blood cells flood into the affected area. This causes irritation and inflammation that lead to congestion.1 
  4. And it continues – The longer your exposure to pollen, the more inflammation happens and the more histamine is released. This causes your runny nose, itchy eyes, and other symptoms to continue and get worse.1

Not everyone reacts to pollen in this way. For most people, exposure to this dusty substance is completely harmless and causes no reaction. One thing that has an important role in determining how likely you are to develop hay fever is genetics.4

Your susceptibility to develop symptoms of hay fever is usually passed down through your family.4 Do you have a parent who experiences a seasonal flurry of sneezes? Then you’re also more likely to experience these inconvenient side effects.

Why is hay fever worse on some days than others?

Why is hay fever worse on some days than others?

Hay fever is triggered by pollen, and the intensity of the reaction will depend on the type of pollen that’s the cause of hay fever for you. The weather also has a big role in the level of pollen in the air and how it spreads.5

For example, because daylight is essential to the production of pollen, a long, sun-drenched day encourages pollen to multiply.5 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.6

To understand more about why your hay fever changes, we have an in-depth guide to the UK pollen count by season here.

Spotting hay fever in children

As soon as the sun comes out, it’s a child’s instinct to get outdoors. To roll down grassy hills and climb trees. But have you noticed after a day bouncing around the garden, your little one is a bit sniffly or is itching their eyes more?

Hay fever in children is very common in the UK, with as many as 40% of children suffering from symptoms during the warmer months.7 Although hay fever can start in adulthood, it frequently first develops in children or during adolescence.7

The problem is that 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 from symptoms can help.

Recognising hay fever in children isn’t straightforward. Seasonal allergic rhinitis (to give it its formal name) shares many symptoms with the common cold.8 This makes it easy for parents to brush off their child’s runny nose as a summer cold.

First, let’s look at the symptoms and then the tell-tale signs that may suggest that your child may have developed an allergy to pollen.

Hay fever symptoms in children: 

  • Red, itchy, or watery eyes 
  • Sneezing 
  • A blocked or runny nose 
  • Itchy throat, mouth, nose, and ears 
  • Coughing 
  • Loss of smell 
  • Earache 
  • Tiredness

5 behaviours that can help you to spot hay fever in a baby or toddler9 

  1. You’ll notice your child rubbing their eyes because they’re itchy 
  2. Frequent sneezing, especially when outside or around greenery 
  3. A constantly running nose. With hay fever the discharge is usually clear 
  4. Symptoms that come and go in line with how much time is spent outdoors and the weather 
  5. Hay fever can disrupt a child’s sleep patterns

What’s the best way to treat hay fever?

Fortunately, there’s relief available from the uncomfortable side effects of an allergy to pollen. In addition to a whole range of hay fever treatments, there are also lots of things you can do to minimise or manage your hay fever symptoms.

From a natural antihistamine, such as Quercetin to adding allergy fighting foods to your diet, there are lots of things you can do to keep hay fever symptoms under control. You don’t have to rely on traditional hay fever tablets alone.

If you’ve lived with hay fever since childhood, you’ll be familiar with the main symptoms. Red, watery eyes, coughing, sneezing, and incessant itchiness are all irritating signs of an allergy to pollen.3

But if the onset of symptoms is something new in adulthood, you may assume you’re experiencing a cold. This can lead to suffering for several weeks unnecessarily.

Recognising the difference between hay fever and a cold, and then identifying the type of pollen that triggers your reaction, is an important way to take control of your allergy. And this will allow you to get outside and make the most of the summer sun.

Still want to know how to treat hay fever? We’ve got a full guide to hay fever remedies here.

FAQs

What causes hay fever?

Hay fever is caused by an allergic reaction to pollen, a very fine powder produced by trees, flowers, grasses, and weeds. When those with hay fever breathe in plant pollen, their bodies overreact.3

The immune system registers the incoming pollen as dangerous. This kickstarts the production of antibodies. A release of chemicals called histamines follows. As a result, airways start to swell, and you’ll notice a runny nose, sneezing, and teary eyes.10

This is your body’s well-meaning effort to eject the allergen from your body and prevent further pollen particles from getting in.

Want to understand more about the link between pollen and hay fever? We’ve got a more comprehensive guide on what causes hay fever here.

What is the difference between hay fever, a cold, and COVID-19?

Wondering if your hay fever symptoms are a sign of a summer cold instead? Dr. Subashini, Medical Director at Aviva Health, and former Director of Science at Holland & Barrett, offers some insight:

"It can often be hard to distinguish between the symptoms of hay fever, a cold, and Covid-19 unless you are medically trained.

Both Covid-19 and the common cold are caused by viruses, but seasonal allergies are immune system responses. Generally, people who have had hay fever before would be familiar with their symptoms.

If they are experiencing new symptoms and those that suggest COVID-19 as per the guide below, we would recommend them to take a test." 

We’ve got a full guide to how to spot the difference between a cold and hay fever here, but this is also a useful guide to the symptoms you may be experiencing:3,11,12
Symptom Hay fever Cold Covid-19
Itchiness Usually Rarely Rarely
Runny nose Usually (clear discharge) Usually (yellow/green discharge) Sometimes
Sneezing Usually Usually Rarely
Sore throat Sometimes Usually Usually
Cough Rarely Sometimes Usually (dry)
Tiredness Sometimes Sometimes Usually
Muscle aches Never Sometimes Usually
Fever Never Rarely Usually
Diarrhoea & vomiting Never Never Sometimes
Onset of symptoms Sudden and usually linked with exposure to allergens Gradual Gradual
Duration of symptoms Can last for weeks, depending on duration of exposure to allergens Usually a few days Usually 5-14 days (some people experience long covid)

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.13 This watery mucus causes a tickle that can lead to hay fever cough.14

In addition, people with asthma are also susceptible to hay fever symptoms.10 In these cases, pollen can trigger more intense reactions. These more severe hay fever symptoms can include coughing and wheezing.15

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, although there have not been any scientific studies into the relationship between the two.16

Although the exact mechanism is not known, it is thought that 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.17

For more information on how this works, we’ve got a guide into hay fever rashes here.

The final say

Hay fever can be debilitating, but if you know what you’re looking for, you can remedy the situation. If you’ve got a sudden onset of cold-like symptoms in the summer, it may be worth checking to see if you have hay fever.

Traditional symptoms include sneezing, a blocked or runny nose, red, itchy or watery eyes, itchy throat, mouth, nose and ears, coughing, loss of smell, headache, earache, and tiredness.1

If you are looking for hay fever remedies and relief, we’ve got plenty of hay fever remedies, from sprays, to hay fever tablets, and even balms.

Want to learn more about hay fever? We’ve got plenty of information about: 

Sources

1. Pollen Allergies [Internet]. Met Office. Met Office; 2019 [cited 2023 Dec 19]. Available from: https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/weather/warnings-and-advice/seasonal-advice/health-wellbeing/pollen/pollen-allergies
2. Immunotherapy for Environmental Allergies. NIAID. May 12, 2015. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20150617190743/http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/environmental-allergies/Pages/immunotherapy.aspx
3. NHS Choices. Hay fever [Internet]. 2023 [cited 2023 Dec 19]. Available from:https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hay-fever/
4. Choi B, Mun Soo Han, Ji Won Kwak, Tae Hoon Kim. Genetics and Epigenetics in Allergic Rhinitis. Genes [Internet]. 2021 Dec 17 [cited 2023 Dec 19];12(12):2004–4. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8700872/
5. Silverberg JI, Braunstein M, Lee-Wong M. Association between climate factors, pollen counts, and childhood hay fever prevalence in the United States. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. 2015. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0091674914011154
6. Schramm P, Brown C, Saha S, Conlon KC, Manangan A, Bell JE, et al. A systematic review of the effects of temperature and precipitation on pollen concentrations and season timing, and implications for human health. International Journal of Biometeorology [Internet]. 2021 Apr 20 [cited 2023 Dec 19];65(10):1615–28. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33877430/
7. Turner PJ, Kemp AS. Allergic rhinitis in children. Journal of paediatrics and child health. 2012 Apr;48(4):302-10. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1440-1754.2010.01779.x
8. NHS Choices. Allergic rhinitis [Internet]. 2023 [cited 2023 Dec 19]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/allergic-rhinitis/
9. Kids Health Information : Hay fever [Internet]. Rch.org.au. 2021 [cited 2023 Dec 19]. Available from: https://www.rch.org.au/kidsinfo/fact_sheets/hay_fever/
10. Wheatley LM, Togias A. Clinical practice. Allergic rhinitis. The New England Journal of Medicine. 2015. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4324099/
11. NHS Choices. Common cold [Internet]. 2024 [cited 2024 Feb 5]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/common-cold/
12. NHS Choices. COVID-19 symptoms and what to do [Internet]. 2024 [cited 2024 Feb 5]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/covid-19/covid-19-symptoms-and-what-to-do/
13. NHS Choices. Catarrh [Internet]. 2023 [cited 2023 Dec 19]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/catarrh/
15. Bousquet J, Khaltaev N, Cruz AA, Denburg J, Fokkens WJ, Togias A, Zuberbier T, Baena‐Cagnani CE, Canonica GW, Van Weel C, Agache I. Allergic rhinitis and its impact on asthma (ARIA) 2008. Allergy. 2008. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1398-9995.2007.01620.x
16. Hives (Urticaria) | Causes, Symptoms & Treatment [Internet]. ACAAI Public Website. 2022 [cited 2024 Feb 5]. Available from: https://acaai.org/allergies/allergic-conditions/skin-allergy/hives/
17. Hives: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia [Internet]. Medlineplus.gov. 2021 [cited 2024 Feb 5]. Available from: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000845.htm
 

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