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Hay fever or coronavirus? How to tell the difference

GP and Lead Physician, Bupa Reading Health & Dental Centre
27 May 2020

Now is a prime time for those who suffer with hay fever to experience symptoms. Grass and tree pollen are highest around this time of the year (May to July). But as the coronavirus pandemic continues, how can you tell if your symptoms are related to coronavirus or hay fever? Here, I’ll explain how to spot the difference.

How can I tell if it’s hay fever or coronavirus?

In short, the symptoms of coronavirus are different to those of hay fever (allergic rhinitis). The main symptoms of coronavirus are:

  • a high temperature
  • a new, continuous cough
  • a loss of, or change in, your normal sense of taste or smell (anosmia)

These aren’t symptoms of hay fever. If you have hay fever, you’re likely to find yourself sneezing, with a runny or stuffy nose – which aren’t typical symptoms of coronavirus.

If you have a blocked nose because of hay fever, this may affect your smell or taste. Losing your ability to taste or smell because of coronavirus isn’t usually because of a blocked nose because this isn’t a symptom.

Symptoms of hay fever

Hay fever symptoms aren’t usually serious and, generally, you won’t feel that ill. However, if your symptoms are bad, they can impact your day-to-day life and leave you feeling low.

The most common hay fever symptoms include:

  • sneezing
  • a blocked or runny nose (known as rhinorrhoea)
  • itchy eyes, nose, throat and roof of your mouth
  • red or watery eyes
  • postnasal drip (mucus dripping down your throat from the back of your nose) – this may make you cough
  • headache (caused by a stuffy nose)

A blocked nose is usually the most troublesome hay fever symptom. Red, watery or itchy eyes are also called allergic conjunctivitis. Some people with hay fever only have symptoms that affect their eyes.

To learn how to manage symptoms of hay fever and what treatments are available, see our topic page on hay fever.

Does having hay fever make me more vulnerable to coronavirus?

There’s no evidence to suggest that you’re more vulnerable to coronavirus if you have allergies. This is because an allergy isn’t an autoimmune disease. An allergy is a result of an exaggerated immune response to an allergen, such as pollen. Your immune system essentially overreacts, causing the symptoms you experience. You should be able to respond to viruses just as effectively as anyone else.

Can anti-allergy medicines affect my immunity?

Medication such as antihistamines tablets and nasal sprays are generally considered safe, so you can continue to use these to manage your hay fever symptoms during this time. There’s no research to show that antihistamines lower your body’s immune response.

But oral steroids and immunosuppressive tablets could affect your immunity. So it’s important to seek advice from your GP if you’re taking these.

Hay fever, coronavirus and asthma

For some people, pollen can trigger asthma attacks or make their asthma worse. Coronavirus can cause breathing difficulties, putting those with severe asthma at a greater risk.

If you have asthma and are prone to hay fever, you should:

  • make sure you take your asthma medicines as prescribed, and always carry your inhaler with you
  • control your hay fever symptoms with medicines and reduce your exposure to pollen as much as you can
  • take steps to avoid catching coronavirus by social distancing and washing your hands regularly

Jo Byfleet
GP and Lead Physician, Bupa Reading Health & Dental Centre

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    • Overview of allergic and atopic disorders. MSD Manual – Professional Version., last reviewed July 2019
    • Coronavirus and allergy – FAQs. Allergy UK., accessed 10 May 2020
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    • Guidance on shielding and protecting people who are clinically extremely vulnerable from COVID-19. Public Health England., updated 18 May 2020

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