Hay fever or cold? Here’s how to tell the difference

For many people, annoying hay fever begins earlier and earlier in the year. Or maybe it’s a cold? We’ll tell you which symptoms you can use to recognize whether pollen is behind the sniffly nose or whether it’s viruses.

Itchy skin, runny nose, watery eyes – many pollen allergy sufferers increasingly feel the first symptoms of hay fever as early as January or February. Due to climate change, some allergy-causing plants are blooming earlier and the pollen annoys allergy sufferers.

The most important questions and answers about hay fever.

Who gets hay fever?

There is evidence that the predisposition to hay fever is at least partially inherited. This particularly often affects people whose parents or siblings also suffer from allergies. Many researchers also believe that excessive hygiene makes the body susceptible to allergies such as hay fever. The underemployed immune system, which is actually responsible for defending against diseases, goes crazy as soon as it comes into contact with foreign bodies. On the other hand, anyone who was allowed to play in the dirt as a child and often came into contact with bacteria in this way has a hardened immune system and can classify the pollen attacks as harmless. Around 15 percent of Germans have loud Robert Koch Institute Hay fever – that’s 12 million out of 80 million inhabitants.

How does hay fever occur?

Like all allergies, hay fever is an overreaction of the immune system: the body identifies substances that are actually harmless as hostile. In the case of hay fever, it is the pollen from trees, bushes, grasses, grains and herbs that puts the body on alert – more precisely, the proteins that cover the surface of the pollen.

When it first comes into contact with the pollen, the immune system forms so-called IgE antibodies in order to be able to defend itself against an attack by the supposedly dangerous substance later. From now on, these become active every time the body comes into contact with the allergy trigger: They ensure that the hormone histamine is released. This causes the blood vessels to expand and the muscles in the bronchi to contract – an allergic reaction occurs.

When does the pollen fly?

In general, the rest periods for those suffering from hay fever are becoming shorter and shorter, which is partly due to the mild climate. Early bloomers such as hazel and alder can release the first pollen as early as January, and the end of the pollen count is increasingly moving into autumn. Sometimes the last grass and nettle pollen is still on the way in November. However, the high season for pollen is still the months April to July.

Pollen flight calendar for Germany: This overview is based on the flight data of individual pollen from previous years. The letters above the table mark the months.

© Data: pollenstiftung.de; Graphics: P. Rösing / stern

A distinction can be made between three types of pollen allergy sufferers: The spring type is allergic to tree pollen such as birch, alder, hazel or elm. The summer type is particularly troubled by pollen from grasses and grains, such as rye, plantain or stinging nettle. The fall type is susceptible to weed pollen such as mugwort, ragwort and ragweed.

Find out which pollen is currently in the air and how big the pollution is on this overview page of the German Weather Service (DWD).

What does hay fever feel like?

Hay fever doesn’t feel the same for everyone affected. Some allergy sufferers complain of severe sneezing attacks and runny nose. For others, the nose itches or is completely blocked and swollen. Many suffer from red, itchy and watery eyes that are very sensitive to light.

Added to this are fatigue, sleep disorders, headaches and irritability. In severe cases, asthma attacks with shortness of breath occur.

How do I know I have hay fever and not a cold?

Of course, if your nose runs in spring, a normal cold can also be to blame. But if the supposed cold lasts for weeks, there is probably an allergy behind it. In contrast to the “normal” cold, hay fever is also dependent on the weather: since there is less pollen in the air after a long period of rain, the symptoms subside. And even if the itching and sneezing only occurs near certain flowering trees and bushes, this is an indication of hay fever.

If these points apply, you should register for an allergy test with an ear, nose and throat doctor, dermatologist, allergist or general practitioner.

How can the doctor diagnose hay fever?

The most common way to determine allergies is the so-called prick test. The doctor takes tiny drops of various allergy-causing substances and applies them to the inside of the arm. Beforehand, the skin is scratched at this point with a needle so that the substance can enter the organism. If the patient has an allergic reaction to one of the substances applied, the skin will begin to itch after a few minutes. Red wheals often appear.

Another method is the blood test, in which the doctor examines the blood for certain antibodies against allergenic substances.

To confirm their suspicions, some doctors use the provocation test: pollen is sprayed directly onto the nasal mucosa.

What helps against hay fever?

There are a number of medications that make the hay fever season somewhat bearable for allergy sufferers. However, they all have one thing in common: they do not treat the cause of the allergy, but only relieve the symptoms.

Even before the pollen season, so-called mast cell stabilizers can be used to ensure that hay fever breaks out less severely. Nasal or eye drops containing this active ingredient cause the body to release less histamine.

But once your nose itches and runs, mast cell stabilizers no longer help. Then antihistamines are needed: They alleviate the effects of the hormone histamine. They are available as nasal sprays, drops and tablets. In contrast to the early medications of this type, newer antihistamines hardly make you sleepy.

Cortisone preparations are even more effective; However, they do not work as quickly as antihistamines. Cortisone has an undeservedly bad reputation – eye drops and nasal sprays containing cortisone hardly have any side effects these days.

At best, decongestant nose drops, like those used for “normal” colds, are suitable for short-term relief of the symptoms. However, they are not a permanent solution: a habituation effect can occur after just ten days of treatment.

What can I do against hay fever in everyday life?

There are a number of simple tips that make life with hay fever easier for allergy sufferers. In rural areas, the pollen concentration is usually highest in the morning and midday, but in the city it is in the evening. “Therefore, in the country it is better to ventilate in the evening hours and in the city it is better to ventilate in the morning hours,” advises the DAAB. It may also be a good idea to wash your hair before going to bed to rinse out any possible pollen. Street clothes should also never be left in the bedroom.

Can you cure hay fever?

So far, hay fever can only be cured with specific immunotherapy, also known as hyposensitization. It works like a vaccination: the immune system is confronted with an extract of the allergy-causing pollen until it realizes that it is harmless.

The doctor either injects the pollen extract or drops it under the tongue – initially only a tiny dose, which is later gradually increased. Over the course of the treatment, the body gets used to the substance: the allergy becomes weaker and often disappears completely. There are now also tablets that you can take at home.

The disadvantage of hyposensitization: It is very lengthy and not always successful. It takes three to four years until an allergy is finally eliminated – initially with weekly and later monthly sessions. The success rate is around 80 percent.

The therapy is most successful with children and adolescents. The longer a patient has lived with hay fever, the lower the chance of recovery.

What diseases can hay fever cause?

Hay fever causes the mucous membranes to swell and weakens the immune system. Bacteria have an easy time of it. This is why pollen allergy sufferers often suffer from sinus infections and middle ear infections, which can even become chronic.

In addition, one allergy often leads to others. People who are allergic to pollen have a higher risk of developing allergies to certain foods, house dust or animal hair.

Every third to fourth hay fever patient experiences a so-called “floor change”. The pollen allergy moves to the lungs and asthma develops: a chronic disease of the respiratory tract with attacks of shortness of breath, coughing and shortness of breath.

Angelika Unger/ikr/rha

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