Do I have Covid or hay fever? The confusion that’s contributing to surge in cases

Covid hay fever symptoms - Tero Vesalainen
Covid hay fever symptoms - Tero Vesalainen

Covid being mistaken for hay fever may be contributing to the current wave of coronavirus cases, scientists believe.

There is some overlap between the symptoms of the two conditions and the UK this summer is battling very high levels of pollen in the air.

The Met Office on Monday said levels are “very high” across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, while being “high” in much of Scotland.

It comes as data show that there may be a new Covid wave brewing with around 1.4 million people in the UK testing positive last week, according to the ONS, up 43 per cent from the week before.

The telltale symptoms of hay fever — an allergic reaction to the pollen of trees and grasses that affects one in four people — are sneezing, a sore throat and a runny nose.

These symptoms are also commonly caused by omicron, the currently dominant variant of Covid which is more mild than its predecessors.

Coronavirus’s three traditional trademark symptoms (sore throat, fever and loss of taste/smell) which were first posited in spring 2020 are increasingly forming a minority of cases as new variants and vaccination morphed Covid into a more “cold-like” disease.

Prof Azeem Majeed, the chairman of primary care and public health at Imperial College London, told The Telegraph: “I’ve had a few patients, and also some colleagues as well, who thought they just had hay fever but when they tested it transpired they actually had Covid.

“I think one issue is that, unlike two years ago, we’ve now got population immunity through vaccination or prior infection which does tend to suppress the symptoms somewhat into things like a runny nose, a mild cough, sneezing, for example, which would overlap quite a lot with hay fever. For that reason, people may therefore confuse it with hay fever.

“Now, because of immunity, people often get milder symptoms than before, and therefore may confuse it with other illnesses like colds or hay fever.”

He said that waning immunity from the last round of boosters, increased mixing and the end of free testing are all likely contributing to the uptick in Covid cases, but confusion caused by hay fever is likely adding to this as well.

Marc Donovan, the chief pharmacist at Boots, put out a guide this week to help people tell if they are suffering from Covid or hay fever.

Sneezing ‘not a recognised Covid symptom’

“Typical hay fever symptoms include sneezing, a runny or blocked nose, itchy red watery eyes or an itchy throat, mouth, nose and ears,” he said.

“The most common symptoms of Covid-19 include a high temperature and/or a new continuous cough.”

And while Mr Donovan said sneezing is not a recognised Covid symptom, other experts disagree.

Prof Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, who founded the Zoe app, has long called for the Government to expand its list of symptoms to reflect that omicron’s symptoms are more like a cold than delta, alpha and other variants.

“It is possible [high pollen levels are fooling people into thinking they have a bout of hay fever when in fact they have Covid], but people are pretty good at knowing when they are sick,” Prof Spector told The Telegraph.

“It’s always good to check any new cold-like symptoms with a quick LFT test but if your only symptoms are a runny nose or sneezing it might just be hayfever.

“If hay fever symptoms seem worse than normal, I’d advise people to take a test just to be safe. Covid cases are definitely rising fast again, so the more cases we can catch early the more we can suppress the spike in case numbers.”

A study published earlier this year by the Zoe team in the Lancet found three quarters of omicron patients have a runny nose, 70 per cent have a sore throat and two-thirds sneeze.

‘Prior infection and vaccination will see us through the summer’

Data from Zoe also found that loss of sense of smell or taste is 80 per cent less common with omicron than it is with delta infections, while a sore throat is 55 per cent more common.

Margaret Kelman, the head of clinical at Allergy UK, told The Telegraph: “Omicron’s cold-like symptoms (runny nose and sore throat) may make it possible that some may mistake their symptoms for hay fever or a common cold rather than Covid in the early stages.

“Hay fever symptoms tend to be an itchy nose, eyes or throat, runny nose, sneezing, and watery eyes.

“Although hay fever symptoms may increase in intensity and make you feel miserable, they do not cause extreme lethargy, headaches or stomach upset that can be seen with Ccovid, and you won’t get a high temperature or fever with hay fever; despite fever being in its name.”

Prof Majeed added that although the Covid indicators are currently pointing in an unfavourable direction, we will likely be okay over the summer, as respiratory viruses tend to thrive in the winter.

“I would say probably we will be okay over the next few months,” he said. “I think we might see some uptick, but I think the protective effects of prior infection and vaccination will see us through the summer.”