Is it hay fever or a cold? How to tell the difference

March 10, 2021

At the first sign of a runny nose and sneezing, what do you do? 

Do you assume you’ve picked up a cold from somewhere? Or do you wonder if it’s your allergies acting up again?

With nearly 1 in 5 Australians experiencing hay fever, it’s worth checking with a health professional if you’re unsure. A doctor will not only help you tell the difference between hay fever and a cold, they’ll also be able to provide you with the right hay fever treatment. 

What is hay fever?

Hay fever—also called allergic rhinitis or seasonal allergies—is a type of allergic reaction. Hay fever symptoms are usually triggered by certain types of grass and tree pollens. But people who have hay fever can also be triggered by dust mites, mould spores or animal skin and hair. Collectively, these triggers are known as hay fever allergens.

The term ‘hay fever’ is a bit of a misnomer. Symptoms don’t only flare up in response to hay. And fever is never a symptom of allergic rhinitis. 

Your hay fever symptoms can flare up depending on where you live in Australia and the time of year. And it literally depends on how the wind blows. That’s how pollens become more concentrated in the air in certain places and at certain times. 

For example, pollen counts are lower on the east coast of Australia. That’s because most winds come from the sea, and the coastal areas are protected from westerly winds by the Great Dividing Range. 

On the other hand, pollen counts are higher on the Victorian south coast. That’s because most winds are from the north carrying pollen from the northerly grasslands. 

In Australia, you can find out more about common allergenic pollen-producing plants—including where they grow and when they bloom—with this handy calendar.

Hay fever symptoms

Most people are familiar with the most common symptoms of hay fever: 

  • sneezing 
  • a runny or blocked nose
  • itchy, red or watery eyes
  • itchy throat, mouth, nose and ears

The severity of hay fever symptoms varies with the seasons. A doctor can diagnose hay fever when these typical symptoms develop during a particular season. Or they can perform an allergy test to check. 

But do you know some of the other, less common symptoms of hay fever? These include:

  • loss of smell
  • coughing
  • pain around your temples and forehead
  • headache
  • earache
  • feeling tired

Many people who have hay fever also have asthma. Asthma can flare up with the same allergy triggers (allergens) that contribute to hay fever.

Is hay fever contagious?

Hay fever is not contagious, as it isn’t spread by viruses or germs. Instead, hay fever is the response of your immune system to allergy triggers (allergens). 

On the other hand, common colds are caused by various viruses, collectively known as rhinoviruses. These viruses are transmitted by air and through close contact with someone who has a cold. 

It’s often hard to tell the symptoms of hay fever or a cold apart. 

Symptom check: is it hay fever or a cold? 

The table below will give you a snapshot of the differences and similarities between the symptoms of hay fever and the symptoms of the common cold.

SymptomsHay Fever
(Sudden onset at particular times of year)
Common Cold
(Gradual onset of symptoms)
FeverNoRare
CoughSometimesCommon
Sore throatCommonCommon
FatigueSometimesSometimes
Aches and painsNoNo
Itchy eyesCommonRare
CongestionCommonCommon
SneezingCommonCommon
Adapted from material produced by WHO, Centers for Disease Control and the Australian Government

How to cure hay fever

Currently, no medicine can ‘cure’ hay fever permanently. But there are many options for hay fever treatment that can help relieve your symptoms. You can ask a doctor or pharmacist about the following medicines:

Antihistamines

Antihistamines help the symptoms of hay fever by blocking the action of histamine. Your body releases the chemical histamine in response to allergy triggers. It causes symptoms like itchy eyes, sneezing and a runny nose. 

You can get antihistamine tablets, syrups, nose sprays and eye drops. Nose sprays and eye drops provide rapid, local relief so you can target particular areas for treatment.

Antihistamines are useful for short-term hay fever treatment, providing rapid relief for symptoms. However, they don’t work well for relieving blocked sinuses. 

Corticosteroids

Corticosteroids are a group of medicines that reduce inflammation. They can help prevent the symptoms of hay fever, including a blocked nose.

Allergens can cause irritation and inflammation of the lining of the nose. Nasal corticosteroid sprays can effectively reduce this inflammation.

But corticosteroid nasal sprays work best when used regularly. You must also follow the instructions carefully to ensure effective and safe use of this hay fever treatment. 

Combination antihistamines and corticosteroid

You can get medicines that combine an antihistamine with a corticosteroid. They offer the advantages of both. Check with a doctor or pharmacist to work out if this is the right hay fever treatment for you.  

Decongestants

Decongestants can ease congestion in your nose and sinuses. But they should only be used if antihistamines and corticosteroid therapy doesn’t work. You can get decongestant spray and decongestant tablets. 

  • Sprays unblock and dry the nose. They should only be used for a short period (a few days). If you use them for longer, they can cause ‘rebound congestion’: a worsening of congestion after you stop using it.
  • Tablets also unblock and dry the nose, but they can cause side effects. These include: 
    • tremors 
    • difficulty sleeping
    • anxiety
    • increased blood pressure

Speak with a doctor or pharmacist to see if decongestant tablets are right for you, especially if you have high blood pressure.

Saline

Saline (salt water) spray or drops can help rinse pollen from your nasal passage, which may help relieve your symptoms.

Get your hay fever treatment online

Whatever you need to stop your eyes from watering and your nose blocking, InstantScripts has you covered. It’s quick and easy to order your prescription medicine online. A real RACGP doctor can approve your request and send it to your nearest pharmacy in minutes.

For added convenience, you can even choose to have your script delivered to your door!

To speak with an InstantScripts GP:

Request Consultation

To request a script:

Find Your Medication

Manage your hay fever by avoiding the triggers

The first step to managing your hay fever is to find out what triggers it. If it isn’t obvious what your main triggers are, a doctor can help you with an allergy test.

Once you know your triggers, you can work out ways to avoid them. If grass and tree pollen are causing your hay fever, for example, you could:

  • check your local pollen count at PollenForecast.
  • stay indoors:
    • until after midday, especially when the pollen count is high 
    • if it’s windy 
    • after thunderstorms
  • keep windows closed at home
  • use recirculating air conditioning in the car
  • if your trigger is grass: avoid mowing, playing or walking in grassy areas
  • remove possible trigger plants, weeds and grasses from your garden 
  • plan holidays around the peaks of the pollen season
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