Symptoms and Signs of Hay Fever vs. Cold

Medical Author:
Medically Reviewed on 5/26/2022

Doctor's Notes on Hay Fever vs. Cold

Hay fever (outdoor allergies or allergic rhinitis) is a condition that causes

  • sneezing,
  • runny or stuffy nose,
  • postnasal drip,
  • watery or bloodshot-appearing eyes,
  • fatigue,
  • trouble sleeping, and
  • itching of the nose, eyes, and/or ears.

Common colds have similar symptoms but may also include

The cause of hay fever is the body's immune response (allergic reaction) to foreign material (allergens) usually present in the air you breathe. The cause of a common cold is one or more types of infectious cold-causing viruses that are very contagious. Hay fever is not contagious, and these viral types do not cause colds. Colds usually last about 5-10 days, while hay fever can last as long as the allergens are present in the air (months).

What Are the Treatments of Colds vs. Hay Fever?

The first treatment for hay fever is for patients to limit exposure to the many antigens that are airborne. If you have exposure to hay fever antigens, for many people, over-the-counter (OTC) medications (corticosteroids) in nasal sprays work well to control symptoms. Some people may benefit by adding an OTC antihistamine while others may require prescription medicine; the following are examples of such medications (caregivers may recommend taking some OTCs in combination):

Prescription medications include the following:

In contrast to hay fever, most colds are self-limiting in about 7-10 days. OTC medications for fever, discomfort, congestion, and/or cough may reduce symptoms. In general, do not give children OTC cold medications. Your allergist specialist can help design a treatment plan for your hay fever problems; people with colds usually do not need to be seen, but if you have questions about what to do for a cold in your child, contact your child's doctor.


Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.