Spring has sprung and while many of us are happy to see the back of the cold weather, hay fever sufferers are anything but excited about the first flush of spring. Apart from the sometimes horrible symptoms of hay fever, there is the overlap between hay fever and Covid symptoms to contend with – we now have to think about isolating from others while experiencing even mild respiratory symptoms and testing for Covid. How can we tell the difference and avoid daily Covid tests or spending most of spring self-isolating?? Read on to find out more about hay fever, treatment options and how to tell the difference between it and Covid-19.

What is hay fever?
Also known as allergic rhinitis, it is an allergic reaction in the nose to something in the environment. It can be seasonal, usually spring when pollen counts are high, or perennial, which is present throughout the year and may be due to things which we are exposed to all the time such as dust mites or pets.

What are the symptoms?
Sneezing, runny or itchy nose, itchy dry throat and itching eyes are the most common symptoms. A post-nasal drip can cause a cough, but it may also indicate a diagnosis of asthma, so this should be checked by your doctor. Symptoms can vary in severity and can be very unpleasant and cause fatigue or difficulty concentrating.

What is the cause?
The allergen is airborne and so enters the nose, triggering certain cells within the nose to release histamine – as with all allergies, this is an “overreaction” of the immune system. The histamine release is what causes most of the symptoms. It can run in families and be associated with other related conditions like eczema or asthma. It is very common, affecting around 1 in 5 people and can develop at any age. It can also disappear by itself at any age.

What are the most common allergens?
This varies from person to person, but the common ones are pollens from trees and grass, dust mites, mould, pets and some foods. For some people, symptoms can be triggered by certain chemicals such as in paints or smoke; sometimes symptoms can be made worse by damp or cold weather, alcohol, fatigue or air-conditioning. Many people don’t know what they are allergic to.

What treatment options are there?
Most people manage their hay fever themselves but there are treatments available that can alleviate the symptoms or even switch off the allergic response. You should check in with your GP if you have symptoms most days, particularly if they are interfering with daily activities such as sleep, work or school, sport or recreational activities.

  • Avoiding allergens or triggers
    If pollens are your main trigger, staying indoors as much as you can during the season, especially on windy days and checking daily pollen counts in the media can help. If dust mite is the problem there are a number of online resources to help you manage levels in your home, similarly with seeking out mould and removing it properly. Keeping pets outdoors or out of bedrooms and avoiding any chemical irritants is also a good idea. If you don’t know what you are allergic too, it may be worth investigating allergy testing options – your GP can arrange this if needed.If you also have asthma which is triggered by seasonal allergens, now is a very good time to review your asthma plan, see our article on asthma plans HERE.
  • Treating or preventing the symptoms
    There are a number of treatments available, some over the counter, that may help. Decongestant nasal sprays should be avoided as they can cause nasty rebound effects when you try to stop using them. Steroid nasal sprays however, can be very effective at preventing symptoms when used regularly. Antihistamine tablets can also be effective. There are other options, so talk to your GP about which is right for you. Often a combination of things will offer the best relief.

How to tell the difference between hay fever and Covid or other viral infections
This isn’t always easy as we are being asked to test for Covid and isolate from others if we have any respiratory symptoms. There is a lot of overlap between hay fever symptoms and respiratory viruses including runny nose, scratchy throat, sneezing, coughing and fatigue. Hay fever does NOT cause shortness of breath or a fever (despite the name!), so the presence of these could mean you have a viral infection and should test and isolate. Hay fever symptoms which don’t respond quickly to your usual treatment(s) should also cause suspicion of a viral infection. See the short video linked below for more tips.

The key to telling the difference between your usual hay fever symptoms and the start of a viral infection, is to do what you can to PREVENT your hay fever symptoms in the first place. Many hay fever sufferers are undertreating their condition or have other allergens or triggers that they may not have recognised. Talk to your doctor, we can help you sort out what’s going on and suggest ways to optimise management.

Photo by Edward Jenner

More information:

Book appointment