What is hay fever?

Hay fever is a common condition that affects close to 18 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Also known as allergic rhinitis or nasal allergies, hay fever can be seasonal, perennial (year-long), or occupational. Rhinitis refers to irritation or inflammation of the nose.

Symptoms commonly include:

  • runny nose
  • nasal congestion
  • sneezing
  • watery, red, or itchy eyes
  • coughing
  • itchy throat or roof of the mouth
  • postnasal drip
  • itchy nose
  • sinus pressure and pain
  • itchy skin

Symptoms may become long-term if hay fever is untreated.

Read more: Diagnosing a hay fever cough »

Read on to learn more about hay fever symptoms and how to manage or treat them.

Although the symptoms of hay fever and the symptoms of a cold can feel similar, the biggest difference is that a cold will cause a fever and body aches. Treatments for both condition are also very different.

DifferenceHay feverCold
TimingHay fever begins immediately after exposure to an allergen.Colds begin one to three days after exposure to a virus.
DurationHay fever lasts for as long as you are exposed to the allergens, typically several weeks.Colds usually last just three to seven days.
SymptomsHay fever produces a runny nose with a thin, watery discharge.Colds cause a runny nose with thicker discharge that may be yellow in color.
FeverHay fever does not cause a fever.Colds typically cause a low-grade fever.

Read more about the differences between allergies and colds »

Other conditions

Other conditions with symptoms similar to hay fever:

  • head cold
  • infective rhinitis, includes upper respiratory tract infection
  • irritant rhinitis, reaction to physical changes or chemicals
  • sinusitis

Unlike hay fever, these conditions can also cause fevers.

Hay fever is extremely common in children, though they rarely develop before 3 years of age. But it’s important to treat allergy symptoms, especially in infants and children. Serious hay fever symptoms can develop into long-term health conditions like asthma, sinusitis, or chronic ear infections. Recent studies show that genetics may indicate whether or not your child will develop asthma alongside hay fever.

Younger children may have more trouble dealing with hay fever symptoms. It can affect their concentration and sleeping patterns. Sometimes the symptoms get confused with the common cold. But your child won’t have a fever like they might with the cold and the symptoms will persist beyond a few weeks.

Hay fever symptoms often start immediately after you’re exposed to a specific allergen. Having these symptoms for more than a few days can cause:

  • clogged ears
  • sore throat
  • decreased sense of smell
  • headaches
  • allergic shiners, or dark circles under the eyes
  • fatigue
  • irritability
  • puffiness under the eyes

Do you have a rash from hay fever? »

Experiencing these symptoms over time can have a negative effect on:

  • sleep quality
  • asthma symptoms
  • quality of life as symptoms may make activities less enjoyable, or cause you to be less productive at work and school, or even require you to stay home from work or school
  • ear infections, especially in children
  • eyes, or allergic conjunctivitis, which occurs when the allergen irritates the membrane over your eye
  • sinus inflammation, which can become sinusitis due to persistent congestion

Some patients say that hay fever feels like a cold, especially if it continues for a long period of time and symptoms get worse.

Hay fever symptoms usually start right after you’re exposed to the allergen. Allergens can be indoors or outdoors seasonally or year-long.

Common allergens include:

  • pollen
  • mold or fungi
  • pet fur or dander
  • dust mites
  • cigarette smoke
  • perfume

These allergens will trigger your immune system, which mistakenly identifies the substance as something harmful. In response to this, your immune system produces antibodies to defend your body. Antibodies signal your blood vessels to widen and for your body to produce inflammatory chemicals, like histamine. It’s this response that causes hay fever symptoms.

Genetic factors

The likelihood of developing allergies also increases if someone in your family has allergies. This study found that if parents have allergy-related diseases, it increases the chances of their children developing hay fever. Asthma, and eczema that isn’t allergy-related, don’t affect your risk factor for hay fever.

Your symptoms may vary depending on the time of the year, where you live, and what types of allergies you have. Knowing these factors can help you prepare for your symptoms. Early springtime often affects people with seasonal allergies, but nature blooms at different times of the year. For example:

  • Tree pollen is more common in the early spring.
  • Grass pollen is more common in late spring and summer.
  • Ragweed pollen is more common in the fall.
  • Pollen allergies can be worse on hot, dry days when the wind carries the pollen.

But your hay fever symptoms may appear all year round, if you’re allergic to indoor allergens. Indoor allergens include:

  • dust mites
  • pet dander
  • cockroaches
  • mold and fungal spores

Sometimes symptoms for these allergens can appear seasonally too. Allergies to mold spores tend to be worse during warmer or more humid weather.

Hay fever symptoms can also be made worse by other irritants. This is because hay fever causes inflammation in the lining of the nose and makes your nose more sensitive to irritants in the air.

These irritants include:

  • wood smoke
  • air pollution
  • tobacco smoke
  • wind
  • aerosol sprays
  • strong odors
  • changes in temperature
  • changes in humidity
  • irritating fumes

The symptoms of hay fever are almost never immediately dangerous. Allergy testing isn’t required during diagnosis for hay fever. You should see a doctor if your symptoms aren’t responding to over-the-counter (OTC) medications. You can ask your doctor, or specialist, for an allergy test if you’re interested in learning the exact cause of your allergy.

See your doctor if any of the following occur:

  • Your symptoms last longer than a week and are bothersome to you.
  • OTC allergy medications aren’t helping you.
  • You have another condition, like asthma, that is making your hay fever symptoms worse.
  • Hay fever occurs all year round.
  • Your symptoms are severe.
  • The allergy medications you’re taking are causing bothersome side effects.
  • You are interested in learning if allergy shots or immunotherapy is a good option for you.

Home treatments and plans are available to help reduce your symptoms. You can reduce the chances of coming in contact with dust and mold by cleaning and airing out your rooms regularly. For outdoor allergies, you can download Poncho, a weather app that tells you what the pollen count is, as well as the wind speed.

Other lifestyle changes include:

  • keeping windows closed to prevent pollen from coming in
  • wearing sunglasses to cover your eyes when you’re outdoors
  • using a dehumidifier to control mold
  • washing hands after petting animals or interacting with them in an airy space

To relieve congestion, try using a neti pot or saline sprays. These options can also reduce postnasal drip, which contributes to sore throats.

Treatment options for children include:

  • eye drops
  • saline nasal rinses
  • nondrowsy antihistamines
  • allergy shots, which are most often given to children 5 years old and older

Read about the best ways to treat seasonal allergies »

Cooking or seasoning foods or drinks with turmeric may also be effective. Turmeric contains anti-allergic and natural decongestant properties. Studies found that turmeric suppresses allergic reactions.

Other alternative treatments have less evidence of their benefits, but some people feel a difference after incorporating these foods in their diet. These foods include:

  • shrub butterbur, PA-free
  • spirulina
  • capsicum
  • vitamin C
  • fish oil

Honey is also thought to help lessen seasonal allergies. Those allergic to bees should not consume unprocessed honey. If nothing else, honey may help soothe a sore or scratchy throat.


Many nondrowsy antihistamines are now available over the counter. You may be able to prevent symptoms from developing if you take them before the pollen is in the air. Ask your pharmacist what will work best for you. You may need prescription medication if your symptoms are severe. These may include immunotherapy, or allergy shots.