Are you bracing yourself to cope with the seasonal inconvenience of hay fever symptoms? Or is it a summer cold?
Here comes the sun. It’s time for picnics and lazy days in the park. Bees are buzzing and butterflies flutter between the colourful flora filling your garden. It’s time to admire those blooming borders and tend to your luscious lawn. It all sounds so idyllic. That is until you factor in the raised pollen count. Are you prepared for hay fever symptoms?
Between 10% and 30% of all adults and as many as 40% of children in the UK experience hay fever1. This makes the warm weather harder for many of us to enjoy. Luckily, there are a whole range of ways to minimise discomfort.
But recognising hay fever symptoms is not always straightforward. It may be a common condition, but this doesn’t make it any less baffling. In particular, for those who experience a sudden onset of symptoms as an adult, after showing no signs of pollen allergies before.
Hay fever shares many symptoms with the common cold. This makes it easy for adults to brush off their runny nose as a summer cold. As a result, their allergy proliferates, and they suffer for weeks unnecessarily.
What is hay fever?
Hay fever is a common allergic reaction to pollen – a fine powder produced by plants at certain times of year. When pollen comes into contact with the mouth, nose, eyes and throat of someone with the allergy, hay fever symptoms develop.
Hay fever is sometimes called allergic rhinitis. This is due to it being an allergy causing inflammation in the nose and cold-like symptoms. But, there are two types of allergic rhinitis: seasonal and perennial.
Seasonal allergic rhinitis
If it’s the seasonal form you experience, your allergy symptoms trigger at specific times of the year. This will depend on what plants are in bloom. It’s most common in early spring and summer months.
Perennial allergic rhinitis
Pollen is one of many allergens that can provoke allergic reactions. This all year round variation of allergic rhinitis shares many symptoms with hay fever, but there is an important difference. The trigger is something indoors, such as mould, dust, or a pet.
In this post we focus on seasonal allergic rhinitis – what we usually refer to as hay fever.
Symptoms of hay fever
What is it like to have hay fever? Here are some complaints most can relate to.
- A blocked or runny nose
- Red, itchy or watery eyes
- Itchy throat, mouth, nose and ears
- Loss of smell
Severe hay fever symptoms
There are lots of people with asthma that are also susceptible to hay fever symptoms. In these cases, pollen can trigger more severe reactions. This includes feeling short of breath, a tight feeling in the chest, coughing and wheezing.
Or is it a summer cold?
People that have lived with hay fever for years, know what symptoms to expect and roughly when they are likely to flare up. But in new cases, it’s easy to mistake signs of hay fever for a cold.
A quick skim of the hay fever symptoms above shows how similar this seasonal allergy is to the common cold. It’s easy to understand why it can be hard to distinguish between the two during the summer months. But there are some important differences that mark hay fever as an allergic reaction. Recognising these can help you to treat your symptoms appropriately.
5 differences between hay fever and a summer cold
- Cause: The cause of coughing and sneezing you experience due to a cold is a viral infection, not an allergic reaction
- Duration: A cold usually goes away in one to two weeks. Hay fever can last for weeks or months.
- Itching: If you’re feeling itchiness in eyes and throat, it’s more likely to be hay fever than a cold.
- Nasal discharge: Yellow or green discharge is characteristic of a cold. With hay fever it’s usually clear.
- Onset of symptoms: Symptoms appear quickly in response to a rise in the pollen count. With a cold it feels more gradual.
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.
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.
This is your body’s well-meaning effort to eject the allergen from your body and prevent further pollen particles from getting in.
Four phases of pollen allergy
- Contact happens. Pollen enters your nose. Cells in the nasal passage are sensitised, which leads to phase 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Your susceptibility to develop symptoms of hay fever is usually passed down through your family. Do you have a parent who experiences a seasonal flurry of pollen? Then you’re also more likely to experience these inconvenient side effects.
When is hay fever most likely to happen?
Hay fever is common in spring and summer. Any time between late March and September is a peak time to experience hay fever symptoms. This is when the pollen count is 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.
Plants only scatter their pollen during their growing season. For each plant, this happens at roughly the same time each year. Let’s take the three main pollen types causing hay fever in the UK – tree, grass and weeds.
- The main hay fever season starts in March and April with tree pollen
- It continues with grass from May to July
- Weed pollen comes later in June to August
The worst time of year for your hay fever symptoms depends on when the pollen count is highest for the plant that triggers your allergy. It also varies according to how sensitised you are.
The weather also has a big role to play in the production of pollen and how it spreads. For example, daylight is essential to the production of pollen. So, a long, bright, sun-drenched day creates ideal conditions for pollen to multiply. This can lead to a peak in hay fever symptoms.
Rainfall, on the other hand, causes a noticeable reduction in the amount of pollen in the air. This means those unwelcome grey clouds can provide longed-for periods of respite.
Changes in temperature and wind speed also cause fluctuations in pollen levels, leading to changes in the severity of symptoms.
Who gets it?
About 10 million people in England experience an allergy to pollen2. And this number is rising year on year. It affects both children and adults, with one in four adults and one in 10 children estimated to experience symptoms of hay fever3. In most cases, it’s an allergy that first develops in childhood or during adolescence. Many children grow out of the condition or at least see a reduction in the severity of symptoms as they get older. However, there’s also a baffling tendency for some people to develop this allergy for the first time in adulthood.
With not everyone reacting to pollen in the same way, what makes some people more likely to experience hay fever? There are no clear answers unfortunately. But a family history of allergies can make you more likely to develop the condition. Having asthma or eczema also increases your risk.
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.
You don’t have to rely on traditional hay fever tablets alone. 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.
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. 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.
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Last updated: 4 June 2020