Updated 10th March 2023
Hay fever symptoms and treatment
Hay fever symptoms can make summer less enjoyable for a lot of us. Hay fever and allergies are very common, and as the weather warms up, many of us will start to feel the effects of pollen.
Hay fever can be a tricky condition to diagnose as many of the symptoms are often similar to the common cold or related seasonal illnesses. Hay fever symptoms can include a sore throat, blocked or runny nose, and fatigue. Knowing your symptoms can help you to choose the right treatment.
While hay fever can’t be cured, it can be managed with a range of treatments. There are different types of medication you can buy over the counter such as antihistamines, eye drops, decongestants, and others. There are also various natural remedies that could help ease the effects of hay fever.
What is hay fever?
Hay fever is an allergic reaction to plant pollen. Hay fever occurs when the body incorrectly believes that pollen is a threat, meaning that the body tries to fight off the pollen. The body’s reaction to this threat is to release chemicals called histamines, which are part of our natural defence system. Histamines aim to get rid of the pollen from the body through sneezing, making the eyes water, or causing a runny nose. This is why many of the effects of hay fever are seen in the respiratory system, and why hay fever can cause swelling, redness, and itchiness.
Hay fever is a common condition. It's thought that one in every five of us will have hay fever at some point in our lives. While many start to show signs of hay fever from childhood, it's possible to develop hay fever later in life. You could be experiencing hay fever symptoms even if you've never had it before.
Hay fever symptoms
Hay fever symptoms are generally felt when there is lots of pollen in the air, or what is known as hay fever season. In the UK, this is between late March and September. However, the exact periods you will see symptoms of hay fever will be different depending on the weather, the pollen count, and how much pollen exposure you have. Some people may only struggle with hay fever on days with an extremely high pollen count, while others may have symptoms for the duration of the hay fever season.
Some of the most common symptoms of hay fever are:
- Runny or blocked nose
- Itchy eyes
- Watering eyes
- Sore throat
This list is not exhaustive, and you may experience different hay fever symptoms.
What are the other symptoms of hay fever? Are there any symptoms you might not think are hay fever?
Hay fever symptoms can also include loss of smell, pain, or a feeling of fullness around your temples and forehead. There may also be earache, and generally feeling tired. These effects can easily be associated with a cold, but unlike a cold that usually lasts one to two weeks, they could last for weeks or months due to the presence of pollen. These symptoms may also come and go frequently.
Can hay fever make you cough?
Symptoms of hay fever can include coughing. If you have asthma, you might also have a tight feeling in your chest, be short of breath and suffer from a wheezing sensation while trying to breathe. If your hay fever causes difficulty breathing, you should seek medical advice.
If you are unsure what is causing your symptoms, you can speak to your pharmacist or GP. A pharmacist will also be able to help you select the right non-prescription medications for your symptoms.
Conditions with similar symptoms to hay fever
Some conditions have similar symptoms to hay fever, and it can be hard to differentiate them. For example:
- The common cold can cause fatigue, runny nose, and sore throat. However, this should go away within two to three weeks at most, and nasal discharge will likely be yellow or green.
- The flu can cause headaches and fatigue, but you will often also have a fever, which is rarely present with hay fever.
- Allergic rhinitis is an allergy that may feel like hay fever. If you suffer from a runny or blocked nose, sneezing and itchiness all year round, it could be due to a different allergen such as dust, mould spores, or animal dander.
Hay fever risk factors
There are several risk factors that mean you are more likely to have hay fever. Common risk factors include the following.
- Having other allergies – Other allergies can indicate you’re more likely to have hay fever as well.
- Genetics – you are more likely to have hay fever if other members of your family also have it.
- Asthma – this can make hay fever attacks more severe as it restricts your breathing. If you have asthma and hay fever, talk to your doctor.
- Smoking or secondhand smoke – smoking can increase the likelihood of developing hay fever, especially during adolescence.
Even if you don't have any of these additional risk factors, you can still have or develop hay fever. If you think you have any of the risk factors listed, keep a note of any symptoms to see if you have hay fever.
Hay fever diagnosis
Most sufferers self-diagnose hay fever. This may be tempting if your symptoms are mild and are very similar to the common symptoms of hay fever. However, you should always seek medical advice if you have new symptoms.
A pharmacist can confirm if your symptoms are caused by hay fever and help you find appropriate treatments.
If your condition gets worse or doesn’t improve, you should speak to a GP for further advice. This may indicate you have a different condition, or you may need to be prescribed an alternative medication to those available over the counter.
Hay fever treatment
Most people use antihistamine tablets to treat hay fever. These should be taken prior to exposure to pollen for maximum effect.
If hay fever causes itchy eyes, you may benefit from hay fever eye drops. You can also buy antihistamine creams to help with redness and rashes, and anti-inflammatory steroid nasal sprays to help with a blocked or runny nose. All of these are available from pharmacies without a prescription.
We offer a range of hay fever medications that are specially designed for children.
There are also types of natural hay fever relief. Some foods and supplements are thought to be helpful for managing hay fever symptoms as well, such as local honey, garlic, and vitamin C.
What are the different hay fever treatments available? Are some more effective than others, and do some work better depending on different pollens?
The main treatments include antihistamine drops, tablets or nasal sprays which can help with itchy and watery eyes, sneezing and a blocked nose. Treatments are selected to best relieve the specific symptoms, rather than the pollen causing the allergic reaction.
What are hay fever injections, are they safe, how do they work and who can get them?
Kenalog (a steroid injection) is only safe and recommended for use in a small group of people, as intramuscular steroids can exacerbate existing medical conditions. The mainstay of treatment for hay fever is oral antihistamines, nasal sprays and eye drops.
You can find a range of over the counter hayfever treatment available from our sister service, Chemist Direct.
How to ease hay fever symptoms
In addition to using medication to ease hay fever symptoms, there are other actions you can take to reduce its effects:
- Check the pollen count daily to know when to use medication
- Avoid the countryside on days when the pollen count is high
- Stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke
- Visit coastal areas rather than rural areas
- Dry clothes inside when the pollen count is high
- Wear wrap-around sunglasses and a sun hat outside
When to see a doctor
A pharmacist will usually be able to give you hay fever advice and guidance on medication to help with your symptoms. However, you may need to see a doctor if:
- Your hay fever is severe enough to affect your quality of life
- There are complications, especially shortness of breath or infections
- Your hay fever gets worse or does not go away in winter
You can usually see a doctor about hay fever through a routine appointment. But if you are struggling to breathe, or if you have an infection with a high temperature, you should seek more urgent medical attention by calling 111.
Hay fever FAQs
When is hay fever season?
Hay fever season in the UK is usually between late March and September. Hay fever season starts in March when trees and plants start releasing pollen. Hay fever season ends after weeds have released their pollen in late summer.
Can you develop hay fever if you've never had it before?
Yes, you can develop hay fever at any age. If you have other allergies, you are more likely to develop hay fever, but some people have hay fever with no other allergies.
How to cure hay fever permanently?
There is no way to cure hay fever permanently, but there are ways to treat and manage the symptoms. If medication or remedies from a pharmacy do not help enough with your hay fever symptoms, you should see a doctor.
How long does hay fever last?
Hay fever can last for the duration of hay fever season. Or you may only have symptoms when the pollen count is high. Other forms of allergic rhinitis can be year-round.
Does hay fever make you tired?
Hay fever can make you feel tired. Other conditions can also cause fatigue, so it's important to check your symptoms.
Does hay fever make you cough?
Hay fever can cause a cough, but this symptom could be caused by other conditions such as the common cold. It's important to check your symptoms.
Is hay fever contagious?
No, hay fever is not contagious. However, the common cold and flu can be contagious, so it's worth checking your symptoms to make sure you have hay fever and not a cough or cold virus.
Is hay fever an allergy?
Yes, hay fever is an allergic reaction to plant pollen. Allergies are caused by your body reacting to protect you from substances it perceives as a threat.
Is hay fever genetic?
Hay fever, allergies, and sensitivity to pollen can be genetic. However, you can also develop hay fever even if no one in your family has it.
Can hay fever cause sore throat?
Yes, hay fever can cause a sore throat, though not everyone will have this symptom. The usual remedies for sore throats can be used, such as medicated lozenges or honey and lemon linctus.
Can hay fever give you headaches?
Yes, hay fever can cause headaches. However, antihistamines and anti-inflammatory medications can help to prevent this by addressing the underlying reaction to pollen.
Can hay fever cause rashes?
Yes, hay fever and plant allergies can cause rashes where the pollen comes into contact with skin. Wearing long sleeves, long trousers and a wide-brimmed hat can help keep pollen off your skin.
Is hay fever worse at night?
Hay fever can be worse at night when the pollen settles after a hot day, but this depends on the weather.