What’s the difference between hay fever and a sinus infection?

How do you tell if that itch in your nose is hay fever, or something else?

Spring and summer are many people’s favourite seasons. But along with the brighter weather, warmer temperatures and longer days comes that seasonal menace, hay fever.

[Read more: Hay fever or cold – how to tell the difference between the symptoms]

An increase in the pollen in the atmosphere leads hay fever sufferers to experience a range of symptoms, including a runny nose, frequent sneezing, itchy eyes and a cough.

But what is the difference between hay fever and something a little more serious?

Hay fever is the common name for an allergy to pollen. You can be allergic to several types of pollen or to just one. According to the NHS, there are 30 types of pollen in the UK which can cause hay fever. These 30 are divided into three groups: grass pollen, tree pollen and weeds. Pollens from the grass group are most usually responsible for hay fever.

As hay fever is an allergy to pollen, it is most prevalent in the spring and summer, when the pollen of different plants is released into the atmosphere.

On the other hand, a sinus infection is something very different. A sinus infection – or sinusitis to give it its proper name - happens when a viral infection inflames the linings of the sinuses. The area of your face over your sinuses – so above your cheekbones – will often be painful and tender.

Sinusitis can be distinguished from hay fever as the symptoms are very different. During a sinus infection, the discharge from your nose will be green or yellow and you may have a completely blocked nose too. Not only that, but, being an infection, sinusitis can be accompanied by a fever. Other possible symptoms include headache, toothache and reduced sense of smell.

However, sinusitis and hay fever are not mutually exclusive. Whilst many sinus infections do the rounds in the winter, they can also be a complication which arises from hay fever. The medical name for hay fever is allergic rhinitis. Rhinitis refers to an inflammation and swelling of the nasal passages. This swelling means that mucus doesn’t drain away, leaving sinuses more susceptible to infection - sinusitis.

Whereas hay fever is usually treated with antihistamines and anti-inflammatory nasal sprays, doctors most commonly recommend over-the-counter painkillers to treat sinusitis – except in severe cases where antibiotics and steroids might be prescribed.

To find out more about how you can combat hay fever, read our article: 15 ways to hay fever-proof your life.

If you're concerned about any symptoms, please visit your GP for advice.