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

Expert advice to help you understand your sniffles

Hay fever and the common cold share similar symptoms, so it can be hard to tell the difference between the two – especially during the summer. We’re on hand with a helpful guide to help recognise and treat symptoms – let’s get to it.


What is hay fever?

Hay fever is a common allergic reaction to pollen, affecting up to one in five people at some point in their life.


What is a cold?

A cold is a mild viral infection of the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways. It generally clears up on its own within a week or two.

Marc Donovan, Chief Pharmacist at Boots UK, says: “The hay fever season can be a difficult time for many, so there’s no better time to get clued up on recognising the different symptoms you might have. 

“Some people may mistake hay fever symptoms for a cold or flu and during the current pandemic, may also mistake them for COVID-19 (coronavirus). Download our handy infographic [PDF 1.7mb] to help understand the different symptoms."


What are the symptoms of hay fever?

Hay fever is usually worst from late March to late September. It’s especially common when it’s warm, humid or windy, or when the pollen count is high. Symptoms of hay fever include: 

• A runny or blocked nose and/or sneezing

• Itchy nose, throat, mouth, ears and/or eyes

• Red or watery eyes

• Headache and/or pain around forehead and temples

• Earache

• Sometimes a loss of sense of smell

• Feeling tired

If you have asthma, hay fever may also trigger a tight feeling in your chest and a shortness of breath. You might also wheeze or cough. 

Many people find their symptoms improve as they get older, and symptoms disappear completely in about 10-20 percent of people.


What are the symptoms of a cold?

Cold symptoms generally occur gradually and can include: 

• Coughing

• Sneezing

• A runny or blocked nose

• A sore throat

• Headaches

• Pressure on your face or in your ears

• A loss of smell and taste

More severe symptoms may include a fever and aching muscles, though these symptoms are usually associated with flu. Symptoms are the same in adults and children, though sometimes they can last longer in children. 


What are the differences between hay fever & a cold? 

Hay fever and the common cold share many symptoms, such as a runny nose and sneezing. 

A cold can include a sore throat, coughing, and in more severe cases, a fever. 

Hay fever usually involves itchy or watery eyes.

A cold usually lasts one to two weeks, while hay fever can last for weeks or months, depending on the pollen count. The higher the pollen count, the worse the symptoms will be.


How is hay fever treated? 

The most effective way to control hay fever is to avoid pollen, though this can be difficult, especially in the summer.

There are lots of things you can do to ease your symptoms when the pollen count is high. Putting a barrier balm such as petroleum jelly around your nostrils to trap pollen or wearing wraparound sunglasses to help keep the pollen away from your eyes are good places to start.

Several treatments are available over-the-counter from a pharmacy to help relieve your symptoms. These include:

Boots Hayfever & Allergy Relief

Everyday relief

Help treat the symptoms of hay fever, pet, skin and dust allergies with these one-a-day antihistamine tablets – they’re perfect for keeping handy. Contains cetirizine. Always read the label.

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Boots Hayfever Relief For Adults Nasal Spray

Great for day & night

Treat sneezing or a blocked or runny nose with our nasal spray. The non-drowsy formula gives all-round relief from hay fever symptoms. Contains beclomethasone. Always read the label.

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Boots Hayfever Relief 2% w/v Eye Drops

S is for soothe

Help relieve itchy, red, sore and watery eyes with these easy-to-use eye drops. Gently squeeze one or two drops into each eye four times a day for on-the-go relief. Contains sodium cromoglicate. Always read the label.

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Most people can manage their hay fever symptoms with over-the-counter medicines. You can also visit your local Boots store for expert advice from one of our pharmacists.


How is a cold treated? 

You can treat a cold yourself by: 

• Getting plenty of rest and sleep

• Drinking plenty of fluids to help prevent dehydration – six to eight glasses a day is a good aim for most people

• Gargling with salt water if you have a sore throat

A pharmacist can advise you on suitable medicines to take to relieve symptoms of a cold. These may include a decongestant spray to relieve a blocked nose and paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve a temperature and any aches and pains. Visit your GP if symptoms don’t improve.


Next steps

• Identify whether you have hay fever or a cold

• If you have a cold, rest and drink plenty of fluids. You can also ask your pharmacist for advice on medicines

• If you have hay fever, try to avoid pollen and ask your pharmacist for advice on treatments

Access to prescription only medicine is subject to a consultation with a clinician to assess suitability. Charges apply. ​​​​​​​