Diagnosing Summer Sniffles

Is it a cold? Or is it hay fever?

Unfortunately, sniffs and sneezes can strike even in the warm, sunny, summer months. Sneezing and a runny nose are often associated with colds, but it’s surprising how often it can be hay fever. Hay fever is a common Kiwi ailment which may affect up to 30% of adults and 40% of children1. Pollen sensitivity may begin as early as 6 months of age, although symptoms are not generally prevalent until age two to seven years1.

Hay fever and colds can make your little ones feel pretty lousy. And when they can’t tell you exactly what’s wrong, it’s not always easy to work out what’s causing the sniffle. But, if it comes with a sore throat or cough, it’s much more likely to be a cold and if your child has itchy, watery eyes or nose, and is sneezing, it’s more likely to be hay fever.

A little more about hay fever

The name “hay fever” is a little confusing, as most of the time there’s no hay about, and there’s no fever. Hay fever is also known as seasonal allergic rhinitis – a fancy way of saying a runny or stuffy nose caused by allergy to pollens. Seasonal allergic rhinitis is seasonal, triggered by tree or grass pollens usually in the spring and summer. It’s different to perennial allergic rhinitis which affects people all year round. This is triggered by indoor allergens such as house dust mites, pets, mould, etc. Symptoms  of allergic rhinitis can be mild or severe but, either way, it can make sufferers feel really miserable. Typical symptoms are sneezing, nasal congestion, and itchy nose and eyes.1


This handy table shows the main differences between a cold and hay fever. If you’re in any doubt, talk to your pharmacist or doctor.


How to treat hay fever and other types of allergic rhinitis

Avoiding allergens (eg pollen, mould spores) in the first place helps to minimise symptoms, although this can be easier said than done. For children 12 years and over, a corticosteroid nasal spray such as Beconase® will help prevent hay fever and other allergy symptoms.1 It may take a few days to be maximally effective and should be taken regularly for best results. Antihistamine tablets or syrups are also commonly used to treat hay fever and other allergies. Other products are also available to treat specific symptoms that you might encounter eg itchy eyes. Ask your doctor or pharmacist how best to use these products.

For allergic rhinitis in children younger than 12 years also see your doctor or pharmacist for advice. If your child uses an asthma preventer inhaler every day, it’s important to talk to your doctor before using any other medicines.

Other helpful ideas to reduce allergies such as hay fever

To help stop allergies developing in the first place, keep your house clean, dry and clear of mould. If dust is the cause, use a damp cloth when cleaning to reduce the risk of putting dust into the air and vacuum regularly. A house without carpet will generally have less dust and this may reduce allergy symptoms. 

It’s also helpful to wash your child’s bedding in hot water to kill any dust mites, and to air pillows and duvets in fresh air regularly (or put them in the tumble dryer for a while). Putting soft toys in a freezer overnight will also kill dust mites. If pollen triggers your child’s allergies, keep the windows shut in the car when driving, and if possible remove the offending plant or plants from your garden.

How to treat a cold

If your child has a cold, you can help them feel better by treating the symptoms. For a headache, fever or sore throat, paracetamol, such as Pamol® can help to relieve their aches and pains (use our online dose calculator to figure out the right amount for your child). Or if they have a raised temperature, see our article on how to treat a fever.

Treatment will depend on the age of your child. Children under six years old should not be given most cough and cold remedies because they can cause side effects. Talk to your pharmacist or doctor and read the packaging to be sure of what you can safely give your child.  Be careful not to double up on paracetamol by mistake, as it is contained in many different cold and flu remedies.

Rest, keeping warm and drinking plenty of fluids will help, as will lots of cuddles and attention.

References: 1. Best Practice Advocacy Centre, Issue 24; 2009. Seasonal Allergic Rhinitis. http://www.bpac.org.nz/BPJ/2009/November/hayfever.aspx [accessed 10 December 2014]. TAPS PP6009.