How to Spot the Difference Between Hay Fever and a Cold

Top tips to prevent cold and flu symptoms

Are those sniffles you just can’t shake really a summer cold – or could there be another cause? Telling the difference between hay fever and a cold isn’t always easy, since both conditions have several symptoms in common – including a runny nose, congestion, sore throat, coughing and sneezing.

What’s more, while hay fever – an allergic reaction to one or more types of pollen – usually develops during adolescence or early adulthood, research suggests that there has been an increase in the number of people developing the allergy for the first time as adults. So you can’t assume you’ve escaped its clutches if you didn’t have it as a child.

But while there are plenty of similarities between hay fever and a cold, there are also key differences – and knowing what sets hay fever and a cold apart is vital to getting the right diagnosis and treatment. Let’s take a look at how each condition is most likely to affect you, so you can learn the difference for yourself.

Hay Fever vs Cold

This chart will help you spot the difference between hay fever and a cold, so you can get the right treatment for your symptoms.

Trait/Symptom Colds Hay fever
When it’s most likely to occur November to January (Winter), though you can get them at any time Between March and September (Spring and Autumn)
How it starts Symptoms come on gradually over one to three days Symptoms come on suddenly on exposure to pollen
How long it lasts Usually 7-10 days As long as you’re exposed to the pollen or pollens – can be several weeks to months
Runny nose Often Often
Blocked nose Often Often
Coughing Often – tends to be a chesty cough Sometimes – tends to be a dry cough
Sore throat Often Sometimes
Sneezing Sometimes Often and repeatedly
Fever Occasionally Never
Watery, red eyes Rarely Often
Itchy eyes, mouth or throat Never Often
Muscle aches Sometimes Never
Headaches Sometimes Sometimes
Fatigue Sometimes Sometimes

Quiz: Have I Got Hay Fever or a Cold?

Take our quiz to help you work out whether your troublesome symptoms are caused by hay fever or a cold.

  1. Do you have a runny or blocked nose? Y/N
  2. Is your nasal mucus clear? Y/N
  3. Have your symptoms lasted for longer than two weeks? Y/N
  4. Did your symptoms come on suddenly, out of the blue? Y/N
  5. Do your symptoms get worse when you spend time outside? Y/N
  6. Do you sneeze repeatedly and often? Y/N
  7. Do you have watery, red eyes? Y/N
  8. Do your eyes, mouth or throat itch? Y/N
  9. Do you have a dry cough or sore throat? Y/N
  10. Do you have a fever or muscle aches? Y/N

The Difference Between Hay Fever and Cold – How Did You Score?

Answered ‘Yes’ to 1–4 Questions

It’s most likely that you have a cold or flu. This is especially the case if you answered ‘no’ to questions 2 and 8. Although both conditions have symptoms in common, there are a couple of important distinctions.

One is the colour of nasal mucus. Yellow or green mucus is the sign of a cold or flu.i With an allergy such as hay fever, your mucus is usually clear.

Another is itching. Itchiness isn’t usually a factor in colds, but it’s a classic allergy symptom. It happens in response to the release of histamine when your body detects the allergen – in this case, pollen. With hay fever, itching tends to affect the eyes, mouth and throat most, though some people also have an itchy nose and ears.

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Answered ‘Yes’ to 5–9 Questions

The more questions you answered yes to, the more likely you are to have hay fever. The one exception is question 10. While a fever or muscle aches don’t always feature with a cold, these symptoms are not caused by hay fever.

Other tell-tale factors of hay fever include the length of time you’ve had symptoms and how they started. Typically colds and other respiratory viruses don’t last longer than two weeks. If you’ve been experiencing symptoms for several weeks or months, especially between Spring and Autumn, you could be allergic to one or more types of pollen.

Hay fever will also explain a sudden onset of symptoms. While a cold usually takes one to three days to develop, hay fever symptoms come on as soon as you come into contact with the allergen. This is why your symptoms can be worse when you’re outdoors and on days when the pollen count is high. If you’re suffering from hay fever, you can check pollen count through the weather forecast before you head outside.

Top tips to prevent cold and flu symptoms