hay fever or cold? This is how you recognize the difference


Millions of Germans are allergic to pollen. How hay fever develops, how it is recognized and what really helps against it – we answer the most important questions about annoying allergy.

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Hay fever sufferers should get their handkerchiefs ready for the coming days: Due to the persistently warm temperatures, the first pollen from hazel and alder already buzzes through the air. The pollen risk index of the German Weather Service warns of medium to high pressures for these early bloomers. Particularly affected is the western part of Baden-Wuerttemberg, the Ruhr, Lower Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Berlin-Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

In Bavaria and at high altitudes, however, allergy sufferers can still breathe deeply. Here it was comparatively cold in the past weeks, so that the vegetation could not develop so fast. The most important questions and answers on the topic.

Who gets hay fever?

There are indications that the predisposition to hay fever is at least partially inherited. It is particularly common for 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, actually responsible for warding off disease, goes crazy when it comes into contact with foreign bodies. On the other hand, who was allowed to play in the dirt as a child and often came in contact with bacteria in this way, whose immune system is apparently hardened and can classify the pollen attacks as harmless. According to the “German Allergy and Asthma Association” ( DAAB ), around 16 percent of the population in Germany suffer from a pollen allergy.

How does hay fever develop?

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

When first contacted with the pollen, the immune system forms so-called IgE antibodies, in order to be able to defend itself later against an attack of the allegedly dangerous substance. These will become active each time the body comes into contact with the allergy trigger: they will cause the hormone histamine to be released. As a result, the blood vessels dilate, the muscles in the bronchi contract – there is an allergic reaction.

When do the pollen fly?

In general, the breaks for hay fever sufferers are getting shorter and shorter, which is partly due to the mild climate . Early flowering plants such as hazel and alder can already fly the first pollen in January, and the end of pollen flow is shifting more and more into autumn. Occasionally in November, the last grass and nettle pollen are on the way. High season for pollen are still the months April to July.

You can distinguish between three types of pollen allergy sufferers: The spring type is allergic to tree pollen such as birch, alder, hazel or elm. The pollen of grasses and grain, such as rye, plantain or stinging nettle, is a particular summer strain. The autumn type is prone to weed pollen such as mugwort, ragwort and ragweed.

Which pollen are currently in the air and how large the respective load is, you can see on this overview page of the German Weather Service  (DWD).

How does hay fever feel?

Hay fever does not feel the same in every affected person. Some allergic people complain of heavy sneezing attacks and fluent coryza. In others, the nose itches or is completely blocked and swollen. Many suffer from red, itchy and watery eyes that are very sensitive to light.

There are also fatigue, sleep disorders, headaches and irritability. In severe cases, asthma attacks with respiratory distress occur.

How do I know that I have hay fever and no cold?

Sure, when the nose runs in spring, even a normal cold can be guilty. But if the supposed cold stops for weeks, there’s probably an allergy behind it. In contrast to the “normal” common cold, hay fever is also weather-dependent: Since after a prolonged rain less pollen in the air are on the road, the complaints subsided. And even if the itching and sneezing occurs only near certain flowering trees and shrubs, this is an indication of hay fever.

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

How can the doctor detect hay fever?

The most common way to detect allergies is the so-called prick test. The doctor takes tiny drops of various allergenic substances and wears them on the inside of the arm. Previously, the skin is scratched at this point with a needle so that the substance gets into the organism. If the patient is allergic to one of the applied substances, the skin begins to itch after a few minutes. Often red wheals also develop.

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

To assure their guess, some doctors use the provocation test: Pollen is sprayed directly onto the nasal mucosa.

What helps against hay fever?

There are a number of medicines that make the hay fever season for allergy sufferers bearable. 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 ensure that hay fever breaks down less. Nose or eye drops with this ingredient cause the body to release less histamine.

But when the nose first itches and drips, mast cell stabilizers do not help anymore. Then antihistamines are needed: they relieve the effect of the hormone histamine. It is available as a nasal spray, as a drop and in tablet form. In contrast to the early drugs of this type make newer antihistamines barely tired.

Even more effective are cortisone preparations; but they do not work as fast as antihistamines. Cortisone has a bad reputation – cortisone-containing eye drops and nasal sprays have hardly any side effects today.

At best, for the short-term relief of the symptoms are decongestant nose drops, as they are used in “normal” cold. But they are not a permanent solution: after just ten days of treatment, a habituation effect can occur.

What can I do against hay fever in my everyday life?

There are a number of simple tips that make it easier for people with allergies to hay fever. In rural areas, the pollen concentration is usually highest in the morning and at noon – in the city in the evening. “Therefore, in the evening rather in the evening in the city and rather in the morning should be aired in the morning,” advises the DAAB. In addition, it may be useful to wash your hair at bedtime to flush out any pollen. Also, street clothes should never be stored in the bedroom.

Can hay fever be cured?

Hay fever heal so far only with the specific immunotherapy, also called hyposensitization. It works like a vaccine: The immune system is confronted with an extract of the allergenic pollen until it realizes that it is harmless.

Either the doctor injects the pollen extract, or he drips it under the tongue – at first only a tiny dose, which is later gradually increased. In the course of treatment, the body gets used to the substance: the allergy is weaker and often completely disappears. Meanwhile, there are also tablets for taking at home.

The disadvantage of hyposensitization: It is very tedious and not always successful. Finally, it takes three to four years for an allergy to be expelled – at initially weekly, later monthly sessions. The success rate is around 80 percent.

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

Which diseases can cause hay fever?

Hay fever swells the mucous membranes and weakens the defense. Bacteria have such an easy game. This is why pollen allergy sufferers often get sinusitis and middle ear infections, which can even become chronic.

In addition, an allergy often causes others. Pollen allergy sufferers have a higher risk of developing allergies to certain foods, house dust or pet dander.

Every third to fourth hay fever patient experiences a so-called “floor change”. The pollen allergy shifts to the lungs and causes asthma: a chronic respiratory illness with bouts of breathlessness, coughing and shortness of breath.