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What's the difference between hay fever and a cold?

It is quite easy to mix up the symptoms of hay fever and the common cold as they do share similarities. Most people may not be able to tell the difference, especially during the yearly season changeover from winter to spring, when the weather favours both catching a cold and hay fever allergy. The good news here is there are still ways you can know if you have hay fever or a cold. Let’s take a look at the differences between these two common ailments, and how you should treat them.

How it begins

The common cold is a mild infection caused by viruses. The most common one is the rhinovirus but any of over 200 different viruses can be the culprit. The reason you experience symptoms like a runny nose and coughing is because your body is designed to attack foreign objects it perceives to be a threat, like viruses. Your body sends special cells to attack and destroy the viruses, but this also leads to irritation in the areas affected like your nose, mouth and throat, hence the symptoms of a cold.

Hay fever is an allergy that affects 13 million Britons. As with other allergies, your body is reacting to specific materials you breathe in that it believes to be dangerous, even though they are not. Hay fever is specific for pollen, which can be from weed, trees or flowers.

If you are allergic and you breathe in pollen, your body reacts by sending special cells to attack the pollen and also releases other chemicals called histamines to stop its spread in your body. These chemicals cause other symptoms not seen in the common cold like itching and watery eyes. 

Seasonal difference

Since hay fever is caused by your body’s allergic reaction to pollen, you will most likely experience hay fever at the start of spring in March, when tree pollen counts are high in the air. Grass and weed pollen counts are higher in the summer months. Windy and humid days also increase the amount of pollen in the air, so you may want to prepare for such days. Although it is still not clear why, common cold tends to be more frequent during the winter months, however, you can have a cold at any time during the year. 

The length of time it lasts

Hay fever can last for a few weeks to months, depending on how long you have been exposed to the pollen irritant causing the allergic reactions. The common cold is a viral infection so your symptoms should start improving after about 5 days or at most a few weeks.

Specific symptoms

The symptoms you can expect with hay fever are:

  • Coughing
  • Sneezing often
  • Blocked or runny nose
  • Itchy eyes, nose and mouth and ears
  • Headaches
  • Pain around your face
  • Itchy, watery and red eyes
  • Fatigue and tiredness

The common cold usually has the following symptoms:

  • Sore throat
  • Feeling unwell
  • Runny or blocked nose
  • A deep or hoarse sounding voice
  • Sneezing and coughing
  • Headaches
  • Muscle pain
  • Fever

So, if you've had symptoms of coughing and a blocked or runny nose, but also have a sore throat, you probably have a cold. If you notice itching and watery eyes with coughing and a blocked or runny nose, you may have hay fever, especially if it's spring season and the pollen count is high. If the discharge from the runny or blocked nose is yellow/green, you probably have a cold but with hay fever, the discharge is usually clear.

The type of cough you have can also be used to tell the difference between hay fever and a cold. The cough with hay fever feels like a dry cough but with a cold, it usually feels like a chesty cough. You should remember that the symptoms of the common cold usually get better within a few days, but if you notice your symptoms last for weeks and get worse when you go outside then you probably have hay fever. 

Treatment and prevention

The common cold virus spreads easily through fluid drops from the coughing and sneezing of an infected person. You can reduce the spread of the common cold virus by washing your hands regularly, keeping your surroundings germ-free and using a tissue when you sneeze or cough. There is currently no cure for a cold but you can manage your symptoms at home until they improve by drinking lots of fluids, eating healthy, resting, using over the counter painkillers and nasal decongestants to relieve a blocked nose.

You can’t catch hay fever like a cold so you can only get it if you’re allergic to pollen. Unlike the common cold, you can treat hay fever with over-the-counter antihistamines which stop the chemical histamine from producing an allergic reaction in your body, and therefore reduces the symptoms of hay fever. You can also use nasal decongestants to help with a blocked nose.

In addition to taking antihistamines, there are a number of ways you can prepare yourself for the hay fever season. Check out our 5 tips to beating hay fever for practical information on preventing the spread of pollen and relieving your symptoms.

The NHS provides more information about the treatment and prevention of hay fever symptoms and the common cold.



Authored & Reviewed By

Mohamed Imran Lakhi

MPharm - Lead Pharmacist
Imran Lakhi is the superintendent pharmacist and founder at Prescription Doctor. He has been at the core of our team.

Published on: 25/07/2019 Reviewed on: 11/06/2021
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