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Hay fever, Covid-19, common cold or flu?

Updated: Feb 14

As the seasons change, just to confuse us further, we now have a new player to add to the mix in the "could this be Covid-19" category of conditions and symptoms, namely hay fever.

The weather is improving here in London, UK (which for now will have to best enjoyed from home) and pollen counts are at their highest for the year so far and will continue to rise as we progress into spring and then summer. Here is an overview of a condition called allergic rhinitis (aka hay fever) to help you to try to differentiate between this and other conditions with some similar symptoms.

Of course, if you get stuck, worried or just need some trusted advice and guidance we are here and still providing support via Video GP Appointments.

1 in 4 people in the UK suffer from hay fever; that's over 10 million people. Most have moderate to severe symptoms. 90% of people still have symptoms even after taking medications from over the counter.

What is hay fever?

Hay fever, known as allergic rhinitis, causes cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose, itchy eyes, congestion, sneezing and sinus pressure. But unlike a cold, hay fever isn't caused by a virus. Hay fever is when the body is allergic to pollen that is carried in the air. When pollen particles encounter the mouth, throat, or eyes, this can irritate the body, triggering a response. This response is the body overreacting to what it believes is an attack.

What are the symptoms of hay fever?

Hay fever symptoms can include:

  • Runny nose and nasal congestion

  • Watery, itchy, red eyes (allergic conjunctivitis)

  • Sneezing

  • Cough

  • Itchy nose, roof of mouth or throat

  • Swollen, blue-coloured skin under the eyes (allergic shiners)

  • Postnasal drip

  • Fatigue

Hay fever, Covid-19, common cold, or flu?

In the current climate of the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic this differentiation has never been more important. We have highlighted a few of the key differences in the table below but as you can see there is plenty of overlap.

Covid-19 and hay fever
Overview of symptoms of Covid-19, common cold, flu and hay fever

What is the treatment for hay fever?

It's best to limit your exposure to things that trigger your hay fever as much as possible. If your hay fever isn't too severe, over-the-counter medications may be enough to relieve symptoms. For worse symptoms, you may need prescription medications. Many people get the best relief from a combination of allergy medications. You might need to try a few before you find what works best. Your doctor will be able to guide you on this. Medications for hay fever include:

  • Nasal corticosteroids also known as nasal sprays. These prescription nasal sprays help prevent and treat the nasal inflammation, nasal itching and runny nose caused by hay fever. For many people, they're the most effective hay fever medications, and they are often the first type of medication prescribed. Nasal corticosteroids are a safe, long-term treatment for most people. Side effects can include an unpleasant smell or taste and nose irritation. Nasal steroid side effects are rare.

  • Antihistamines. These preparations are usually given as tablets. However, there are also antihistamine nasal sprays and eye drops. Antihistamines can help with itching, sneezing and a runny nose but have less effect