Hay fever is also known as allergic rhinitis. It occurs when natural allergens cause a reaction that results in cold-like symptoms. These can include an itchy, dry, persistent cough.
There are two primary types of hay fever. They are distinguished by the duration, timing, and cause of symptoms.
Seasonal hay fever causes symptoms only at certain times of the year. This tends to be in the spring and fall, when plants, fungi, and molds are releasing reproductive spores.
Perennial hay fever usually leads to year-round symptoms, because of continual exposure to environmental allergens.
If a person is not a medical professional, they likely cannot distinguish between a hay fever cough and one caused by other conditions, such as a cold or flu.
However, below are a list of factors that can help when identifying a hay fever cough.
Common traits of a hay fever cough include:
- a duration of longer than 2 weeks
- a continual or unrelenting urge to cough
- relief with the use of antihistamines or decongestants
Sometimes, a hay fever cough will last for as long as a person is exposed to the allergen. For example, a person may only have the cough when around a friend’s pet.
A hay fever cough may be accompanied by:
- itchiness or scratchiness of the throat
- itchy, watery eyes
- unexplained fatigue but never extreme exhaustion
This cough usually does not occur with:
The cough may occur with aches, pains, and stiffness if the hay fever is complicated by asthma or other respiratory conditions, however.
Hay fever occurs when natural allergens enter the body and cause an allergic response.
Some people with hay fever develop sensitivities because of over-exposure or recurrent exposure to an allergen. Many others are born with sensitivities, or have conditions that increase the likelihood of sensitivities developing.
Seasonal hay fever tends to be caused by a different group of allergens from those that cause perennial hay fever, though some people experience both conditions.
Any foreign material can cause an allergic response. While most people are only sensitive to one allergen, others are sensitive to several, and these allergens are usually related.
Seasonal hay fever allergens
Common allergens associated with seasonal hay fever include:
- Grass pollen: Some species are more likely to cause reactions, such as ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, Timothy grass, and Bermuda grass.
- Tree pollen: Pollen from species such as mountain cedar, oak, mulberry, maple, western red cedar, and elm can often cause allergies.
- Flower pollen: Ragweed, dandelion and devil’s paintbrush pollen is often allergenic, as is that of species without obvious flowers, such as lamb’s quarters.
- Pollen from flowering bushes, trees, and shrubs: These can include sagebrush and English plantain.
Fungal and mold spores are also allergens that can lead to hay fever.
Perennial hay fever allergens
Allergens often associated with perennial hay fever include:
- pet dander
- household dust
- the excrement, saliva, and shells of dust mites
- spores from indoor mold and fungus
- chemical irritants in cleaning products, such as laundry detergents
- chemicals found in scented products, especially sprays and aerosol products
- off-gasses from materials such as rubber, canvas, and leather
- air pollution, such as car exhaust
Also, the excrement, saliva, and shells of cockroaches are highly common allergens. An estimated 63 percent of households in the United States contain cockroach allergens. In urban areas, the rates can reach 98 percent.
A 2015 study found that roughly 18 percent of children aged under 17 in the U.S. have been diagnosed with hay fever, especially in southwestern and southeastern states.
If a primary care doctor suspects that a person has hay fever, they will usually refer the person to an allergist, a doctor who specializes in allergies.
An allergist will ask questions about lifestyle habits, home and work environments, medical history, and symptoms, then perform a physical exam of the nose and throat.
Coughs tend to have similar symptoms, because all coughs are caused by the body attempting to clear away foreign particles, using mucus.
Also, the range, severity, and duration of all hay fever symptoms vary from person to person. This makes it hard to establish a firm set of distinguishing symptoms.
Common symptoms of hay fever include:
- an itchy, scratchy, or dry throat
- an itchy nose
- a continual need to cough
- congestion lasting longer than 2 weeks, or as long as exposure to the allergen continues
- congestion that occurs at certain times of the year, usually in the spring and fall
- congestion that only occurs in certain settings where the allergen is present
- itchy, watery, puffy, or swollen eyes
- a runny nose
- a sore throat
- minor fatigue and weakness
- reduced or lost senses of smell and taste
A range of medications and home remedies can treat hay fever and an associated cough.
Useful home remedies may include:
- using a saline-based nasal spray, lubricant, and rinse
- staying hydrated
- taking a long, warm bath or shower
- sucking on cough drops, especially those made from ingredients such as lemon and honey
- drinking warm liquids, such as non-caffeinated teas, particularly blends made from chamomile, peppermint, thyme, and ginger
- adding 1 to 2 tablespoons (tbsp) of honey, ideally locally sourced, to teas or other warm drinks
- drinking a mixture of 1 to 3 tbsp of apple cider vinegar or lemon diluted in 12 ounces (oz) of water throughout the day
- gargling with a mixture of half a tbsp of salt mixed in 8 oz of lukewarm water, several times a day
- making turmeric tea or adding turmeric to meals
If a person has an allergy to pollen, it may help to take a supplement of local bee pollen.
Medical options for treating hay fever coughs include:
- over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines
- over-the-counter or prescription decongestants
- nasal corticosteroid sprays
- allergy shots to build immunity, in severe cases
The best way to prevent hay fever is to avoid exposure to known or suspected allergens. Lifestyle changes can reduce risk and limit the severity of symptoms.
Cleaning the home frequently and extensively can help to eliminate allergens. Tips include:
- dusting and vacuuming all rooms on a weekly basis, including furniture, walls, fans, artwork, and ceilings
- preventing contact with mold and fungus by wearing protective clothing, gloves, eyewear, and a facemask
- avoiding the use of aerosol spray cleaners and products
- washing all bedding in warm water monthly
- wearing a dust mask while cleaning, if allergies are severe
- using natural-based, non-scented cleaning, hygiene and cosmetic products
If allergies are caused by animals, it may be helpful to:
- avoid buildup of pet dander by cleaning
- control or exterminate cockroach infestations
- avoid touching the face or eyes when around pets
- wash the hands after touching animals
- use dust mite-proof mattress covers
A person can prevent insect and rodent infestations by keeping counters free of food crumbs, storing food in sealed containers, and fixing leaky pipes. It may also help to avoid piling items such as clothes, newspapers, and logs.
The following machines can help to eliminate allergens in the home:
- air purifiers
- dehumidifiers, to control and prevent mold
- air exchange machines, for severe perennial allergies
- vacuums with high-efficiency particulate air filters
Tips for preventing hay fever while outdoors include:
- taking over-the-counter antihistamines in the spring and fall
- wearing a face mask and sunglasses
- keeping windows closed during hay fever seasons
- changing clothes frequently when exposure to allergens is likely
Hay fever, also known as allergic rhinitis, is extremely common.
It leads to many of the same symptoms as a cold or flu, including sneezing, nasal congestion, and itchy, watery eyes.
Hay fever can also cause chronic coughing, especially in people with respiratory conditions such as asthma.
Speak with a doctor about coughs that last for longer than 10 days, do not respond to over-the-counter medications, or are painful. It may also help to discuss coughs that occur only in specific settings or seasons.