Is it hay fever or COVID-19?

April 15, 2021

Spring is finally here, and that means we’re also getting into hay fever season here in the UK. At the same time, hundreds of cases of COVID-19 are still being detected in the UK every day.

Some of the symptoms of hay fever overlap with those of COVID-19, such as a runny nose and coughing.

Here’s our advice for how to tell the difference.

What is hay fever?

Hay fever, or seasonal allergic rhinitis, is an allergy to plant pollen. There are many different types of pollen from grasses, trees and flowers, which are produced at various times of the year. 

People with hay fever may be allergic to just one type of pollen, so have quite specific periods of hay fever when that plant is flowering, or may be sensitive to several different types and have much longer bouts throughout the year.

Hay fever symptoms vs COVID-19

Common symptoms of hay fever are:

  • Runny or blocked nose
  • Sneezes and sniffles
  • Itchy nose and/or throat
  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Coughing

More rarely, severe hay fever can cause headaches and leave you feeling tired. 

The key COVID-19 symptoms to look out for are:

  • Persistent coughing
  • High temperature (fever)
  • Loss or change in smell (anosmia)
  • Feeling unusually tired (fatigue)
  • Headaches
  • Sore throat
  • Diarrhoea

How to tell the difference between hay fever and COVID-19

High temperature 

A high temperature (fever) is not a symptom of hay fever, but it is a key sign of COVID-19. If you’re feeling hot or have chills or shivers alongside hay fever-type symptoms like a runny nose and cough, you should self-isolate and get a COVID test.

Coughing

People with hay fever can have a tickly cough due to mucus running from the back of the nose down into the throat (post-nasal drip).

Persistent coughing - which means coughing many times a day, for half a day or more - is also a key symptom of COVID-19. This is usually a dry (unproductive) cough, unless you have an underlying lung condition that normally makes you cough up phlegm.

If you’re coughing more than usual without an obvious explanation, you should self-isolate and get a COVID test.

Wheezing or breathlessness

Some people with hay fever may experience wheezing or breathlessness, particularly if they also have asthma. 

Shortness of breath can be a symptom of COVID-19, but it usually occurs together with other more obvious COVID symptoms such as persistent coughing, fatigue, headache and loss of smell. Read more about COVID-19 and asthma on our blog.

Runny nose

Having a runny or blocked nose is a very common symptom of hay fever. 

A runny nose can also be a symptom of COVID-19. However, it’s more likely to be COVID-19 than hay fever when rates of COVID in the population are high, and probably a regular cold or allergy when rates are low. 

Loss or change in smell

Experiencing a loss or change in your sense of smell (anosmia) is a key symptom of COVID-19. 

Hay fever and allergies often cause a runny or stuffy nose, which can also affect your sense of smell. However, losing sense of smell without having a blocked or stuffy nose is much more likely to be COVID-19 than hay fever. 

If things start smelling or tasting different to normal, you should self-isolate and get a COVID test.

Itchy, red or watery eyes

Having itchy, puffy, red or watery eyes is much more likely to be hay fever or allergies than COVID-19.

Itchy or sore throat

Hay fever and allergies can cause a itchy or scratchy feeling in the throat. Having a sore throat can also be a symptom of COVID-19 but this usually feels more painful than scratchy, similar to the sore throat you might have during a cold or laryngitis.

Spot the symptoms, get a test

If you’re someone who regularly gets hay fever at particular times of the year or allergies in response to specific triggers, you might be able to spot your typical symptoms when they start. 

But it’s important to be aware of the symptoms of COVID-19 and get a test if you feel newly unwell.

There are at least 20 different symptoms of COVID-19, including the ‘classic three’ symptoms of cough, fever and loss of smell (anosmia). It’s particularly important to watch out for headaches, feeling unusually tired (fatigue) and diarrhoea. Find out more about the full range of COVID-19 symptoms here.

If you’re unsure whether your symptoms are hay fever or COVID-19, it’s best to be safe. Get a test as soon as possible to help protect your loved ones and the wider community.

Right now, you can only get an NHS COVID test if you have a cough, fever or loss of smell. But you can get a test through the ZOE COVID Symptom Study if you log any of the known symptoms in the app. 

Stay safe and keep logging.

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