Hay Fever vs Common Cold: How To Tell A Difference?

Written by Sai Pragna Chagarla, Writer at Hola Health
Medically Reviewed by Dr Nelson Lau, MBBS FRACGP, GP & Digital Health Specialist

As the seasons change and allergy triggers abound, many individuals fail to differentiate between the symptoms of Cold vs Hay fever. Both of these conditions pose similar symptoms like sneezing, headaches, congestion, and a runny nose, making them hard to diagnose. Despite sharing similarities, hay fever and the common cold are distinct ailments with differing causes, triggers, and treatment approaches.

What is Hay fever?

Hay fever is also known as allergic rhinitis. It is a common allergic reaction that occurs when the immune system overreacts to airborne allergens. These allergens include pollen, dust mites, pet dander, or mould spores. Hay fever symptoms typically occur seasonally. It corresponds with the times when specific allergens are prevalent in the environment. Hay fever is not contagious.
Around 1 in 5 Australians suffer from seasonal allergic rhinitis.

What is the Common Cold?

The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract caused primarily by rhinoviruses. Other viruses that can cause cold-like symptoms include coronaviruses, adenoviruses, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). It is one of the most prevalent illnesses worldwide. It is characterised by a variety of symptoms affecting the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. These viruses are highly contagious and can spread through respiratory droplets. They can spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks.

According to the Lung Foundation Australia (2022), the common cold is Australia’s most prevalent contagious illness.  This is the cause for absenteeism from school or work, and the primary reason for consulting a general practitioner.

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Shared symptoms of Hay fever and cold

Hay fever (allergic rhinitis) and the common cold share several overlapping symptoms. This can make it challenging to differentiate between the two conditions. Some of the shared symptoms include:

  • Runny or stuffy nose: Both hay fever and the common cold can cause nasal congestion and discharge.
  •  Sneezing: Sneezing is a common symptom of both hay fever and the common cold. This is often occurring due to irritation of the nasal passages.
  • Sore throat: Itchy or scratchy throat sensations may occur in both hay fever and the common cold. The sore throat symptoms are typically milder in hay fever than in common colds.
  • Cough: Coughing can occur in both conditions. It is often more prominent in the common cold, particularly if there is congestion or postnasal drip.
  • Fatigue: Both hay fever and the common cold can cause feelings of fatigue or tiredness.
  • Headache: Headaches may occur in both hay fever and the common cold. They are typically mild and transient in hay fever.

Symptoms of Common Cold Only

While a cold is often considered a minor illness, its prevalence and impact on daily life make it a significant public health concern. Here are some symptoms commonly associated with the common cold and flu but not typically with hay fever:

  •  Fever: The common cold can often cause a mild to moderate fever, whereas hay fever does not typically produce fever symptoms.
  • Body Aches: Muscle aches and general body discomfort are common with the common cold.
  • Chills: Cold-induced chills, where the body feels unusually cold despite normal temperatures, can occur with the common cold but are not a symptom of hay fever.
  • Chest Congestion: The common cold may cause chest congestion. It is a feeling of heaviness or tightness in the chest.
  • Productive Cough: Coughing up mucus or phlegm, known as a productive cough, is more commonly associated with the common cold than with hay fever.
  • Decreased Appetite: Loss of appetite is a common symptom of the common cold. It is due to the nasal congestion affecting the sense of taste and smell.
  • Occurrence: The common cold is caused by viral infections and can occur year-round, although it is more common in the autumn and winter months.

Symptoms of Hay fever Only

Hay fever can significantly impact daily life, causing discomfort, fatigue, and reduced productivity. Some symptoms are more commonly associated with hay fever (allergic rhinitis) than with the common cold. These symptoms include:

  • Itchy or watery eyes: Itchiness and redness of the eyes, along with excessive tearing, are hallmark symptoms of hay fever. These symptoms are less commonly associated with the common cold.
  • Dark circles or swelling under the eyes: These can occur in individuals with hay fever due to nasal congestion and venous congestion around the eyes.
  • Constant rubbing of nose: People with hay fever may develop a habitual upward rubbing of the nose, in response to nasal itching.
  • Allergic conjunctivitis: In addition to eye itching and watering, hay fever can cause inflammation of the conjunctiva. This is the tissue that lines the eyelids and covers the white part of the eye. This condition, known as allergic conjunctivitis, is characterised by redness, swelling, and a gritty sensation in the eyes.
  • Nasal congestion without discharge: While both hay fever and the common cold can cause nasal congestion. However, individuals with hay fever may experience congestion without the accompanying nasal discharge seen in the common cold. This is because hay fever is primarily an allergic reaction to airborne allergens rather than a viral infection.
  • Symptoms triggered by specific allergens: Hay fever symptoms are typically triggered by exposure to specific allergens, such as pollen, dust mites, pet dander, or mould spores.
  • Continuous bouts of sneezing

Hay fever vs cold – Duration

Hay fever depends on exposure to potential allergens whereas the common cold is a viral infection. Since hay fever and the common cold have different causes, the duration of their symptoms also differ:

Hay Fever:

Duration: Symptoms of hay fever can last for weeks or even months. This depends on the duration of exposure to allergens. Hay fever symptoms typically occur seasonally, especially when specific allergens are prevalent in the environment.

Chronic: In some cases, hay fever symptoms may persist throughout the year, especially if the individual is allergic to indoor allergens like dust mites, pet dander, or mould spores. This condition is known as perennial allergic rhinitis.

Common Cold:

Duration: Symptoms of the common cold usually last for about 7 to 10 days, although they can persist for up to two weeks in some cases.

Acute: The common cold is a short-term viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. Symptoms typically peak within the first few days of illness and gradually improve over the course of a week or two as the body’s immune system fights off the virus.

Hay fever vs cold – Prevention

Prevention strategies for hay fever (allergic rhinitis) and the common cold differ due to their distinct triggers:

Prevention of Hay Fever

Minimising exposure to allergens stands as the most effective measure for preventing hay fever. Key strategies include identifying triggers, reducing allergen exposure, understanding medication usage and dosage, and promptly recognizing allergic reactions.

  • Avoid Allergens:
    • For Pollen:
      • Limit outdoor activities until after noon on high-pollen days or during thunderstorms.
      • Refrain from mowing grass or engaging in outdoor activities known to increase pollen exposure.
      • Avoid air-drying clothing and bedding outside.
      • Wear protective eyewear when outdoors.
      • Utilise recirculated air in vehicles.
      • Websites such as Pollen Count help you monitor pollen counts in your area and plan outdoor activities accordingly.
    •  For pet dander:
      • Consider keeping pets outdoors or in designated areas with good ventilation.
      • Wash hands thoroughly after handling pets.
    • For dust and dust mites:
      • Minimise items prone to collecting dust, such as soft toys and fur-based products.
      • Wash bedding, pillowcases, and curtains frequently; consider using dust-mite resistant covers.
      • Vacuum living spaces regularly.
    • For mould and spores:
      • Avoid hiking or outdoor activities during high pollen seasons.
      • Ensure adequate ventilation and natural light indoors.
      • Carefully remove visible mould.

 

  • Medications: Speak to a doctor and get your allergy action plan ready. Keep your medication and allergy action plan along with you. In the case of children, ensure their teacher or school is aware of their allergy action plan.

Prevention of the Common Cold

Preventing the common cold involves practising good hygiene and adopting healthy lifestyle habits to reduce the risk of viral transmission. Here are some effective strategies for preventing colds:

  • Hand Hygiene: Practise good hand hygiene by washing hands frequently with soap or using alcohol-based hand sanitisers. This can prevent the spread of cold viruses by removing infectious respiratory secretions from the hands.
  • Avoid Close Contact: Do not have close contact with individuals who have cold symptoms. Do not share personal items such as utensils, towels, or drinking glasses with others during the cold season.
  • Cover Coughs and Sneezes: Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your elbow when coughing or sneezing. This will prevent the spread of respiratory droplets containing cold viruses.
  • Boost Immunity: Maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating a balanced diet. Get regular exercise, manage stress, and ensure an adequate intake of vitamins and minerals. This will help boost the immune function of your body.

 

Avoid going to public places or work: If you have cold symptoms, stay home from work, school, or social gatherings. This will prevent spreading the virus to others. Resting and staying hydrated can help your body recover more quickly from a cold. You can now get a medical certificate or an online script from the comfort of your home via Telehealth.

When to consult a doctor?

Knowing when to seek medical attention for hay fever or a common cold is essential for managing symptoms effectively. Here’s when you should consider seeing a doctor for each condition:

For Hay Fever (Allergic Rhinitis):

  •  If your hay fever symptoms are persistent, severe, or interfering with your daily activities despite over-the-counter treatments, it may be time to consult a doctor.
  • If you have a history of asthma and notice worsening asthma symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath, in conjunction with hay fever symptoms, it’s important to seek medical attention promptly.

 

For the Common Cold:

  • If your symptoms are severe or persist for more than 10 days without improvement, it may be a sign of a secondary infection or a more serious underlying condition requiring medical evaluation.
  • If you develop a high fever (usually above 100.4°F or 38°C), along with chills, body aches, or persistent cough.
  • If your cold symptoms initially improve but then get worse.
  • If you experience new or unusual symptoms such as severe headache, chest pain, or difficulty breathing, it’s important to see a doctor promptly.
  • If you are a young child, old adult, pregnant, and or an individual with a weakened immune system, you must speak to a doctor immediately.

 

Consult a telehealth doctor in case of severe conditions.

In conclusion, while hay fever and cold share similar symptoms, understanding the differences between the two can help individuals better manage their symptoms and seek appropriate treatment. Whether it’s seasonal allergies or a viral infection, prompt recognition and management of symptoms can help individuals find relief and maintain their well-being.

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Reference

  1. Managing Hay Fever – NPS Medicinewise – Reference Link
  2. Colds – Health Direct – Reference Link
  3. Common Cold – Department of Health Western Australia: Reference Link
  4. The Common Cold – Lung Foundation Australia: Reference Link
  5. Hay Fever – Health Direct: Reference Link
  6. Allergic Rhinitis in Australia – Australian Institute of Health and Welfare: Reference Link
  7. Allergic Rhinitis and Allergic Conjuctivitis – Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia: Reference Link

  8. Sniffles, Sneezing & Cough – The university of Queensland Australia: Reference Link

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Disclaimer

This content is created for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. For emergencies please immediately contact 000.