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: 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:
- A blocked or runny nose
- Red, itchy or watery eyes
- Itchy throat, mouth, nose and ears
- Loss of smell
- Headache, Earache
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.
Differences between hay fever, a cold & covid-19
Wondering if your hay fever symptoms are a sign of a summer cold instead?
Dr. Subashini, 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."
This is a useful guide to the symptoms you may be experiencing:
|Runny nose||Usually (clear discharge)||Usually (yellow/green discharge)||Sometimes|
|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)|
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 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:
- February to June –tree pollen
- May to July – grass pollen (the most common hay fever trigger)
- June to September –weed pollen
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
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 bounding around the garden, your little one is a bit sniffly or is itching his or her eyes more?
Hay fever in children is very common in the UK, with as many as 40% of children in the UK suffering with symptoms during the warmer months.6
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.
Recognising hay fever in children isn’t straightforward. First, seasonal allergic rhinitis (to give it its formal name) shares many symptoms with the common cold. This makes it easy for parents to brush off their child’s runny nose as a summer cold.
Secondly, some signs of the allergy are invisible to the parental eye, making hay fever in babies and toddler harder to spot. With small children, there’s the additional complication of recognising these less obvious symptoms, when a toddler or baby can’t easily explain what they are feeling.
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
- A blocked or runny nose
- Itchy throat, mouth, nose and ears
- Loss of smell
5 behaviours that can help you to spot hay fever in a baby or toddler
- You’ll notice your child rubbing their eyes because they’re itchy
- Frequent sneezing, especially when outside or around greenery
- A constantly running nose. With hay fever the discharge is usually clear
- Symptoms that come and go in line with how much time is spend outdoors and the weather
- Hay fever can disrupt a child’s sleep patterns
How can I stop my child getting hay fever?
As a parent, seeing your son or daughter in discomfort provokes one overwhelming response – is there anything that I can do for my child to help stop hay fever symptoms? For adults with allergy symptoms, there’s a wide range of eye drops, nasal sprays and antihistamine tablets to help control symptoms. But medication options are very limited for younger children and should be administered only under the advice of a doctor or pharmacist.
However, there are natural remedies for hay fever that can help manage the severity of some symptoms and are child-friendly options.
In addition, there are a number of other things you can do to help limit contact with pollen.
Things that can help prevent hay fever in children
The longer your child is exposed to pollen, the more histamine is released by their body, causing more inflammation.
Therefore, limiting contact with pollen can help aid with reducing the severity and duration of symptoms. Here are a few hay-fever friendly habits that you may like to adopt to protect your family.
Know when the pollen count is high
Check the pollen forecast for your local areas, so you can prepare for the onset of symptoms. The Met Office pollen forecast is a useful guide.7
Get to know the pollen cycle
Hay fever is common in spring and summer, when the pollen count is at its highest. It’s possible for children to experience hay fever symptoms between late March and September. Tree pollen is typically high in March and April. Grass pollen reaches peak concentration in May to July, and weed pollen comes later in June to August. By understanding which pollen type triggers your child’s allergy, you can understand better when symptoms are most likely to hit.
Wash pollen away
Change and wash your child’s clothes when they come back indoors after outside play. This will reduce the amount of pollen you bring back into your home. A shower or bath after school can also help to remove pollen.
Keep their bedroom door and windows shut during the day
This again will limit your child’s exposure to pollen when inside and help to minimise discomfort overnight.
Wear sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat
Creating a physical barrier to reduce contact with pollen is also a wise idea. Wrap-around sunglasses are a great option for keeping airborne pollens away from sensitive eyes.
Apply a barrier balm around the nose
Dotting a natural balm around the nose can trap pollen before it gets into the nasal cavity.
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.
Last updated: 10 May 2022