A healthy immune system is essential to fight off the common cold and allergies such as hayfever. The immune system is made up of physical barriers such as the skin, tissue linings and mucous membranes, as well as an internal defence system which attacks and destroys foreign substances. The internal system includes white blood cells, antibodies, and immune proteins and chemicals. When the immune system is working well and is in balance it protects against harmful bacteria, microbes and viruses. When the immune system is not in balance, it increases the chances of contracting colds, allergies and hayfever, as well as other common infections. Colds are acute infections of the throat and nose. They are the most common cause of illness for children and adults and are caused by up to 200 different types of viruses. The viruses that cause colds are contagious and are spread through sneezing, coughing and hand contact.1 Hayfever, also called allergic rhinitis, is a type of allergic reaction. Allergies are caused by an overactive immune system where the body mistakes a harmless substance – such as dust or pollen – as dangerous, and then ‘attacks’ it. This then causes the symptoms of hayfever.2

Cold and hayfever symptoms

Colds and hayfever have similar symptoms but have different causes:

  • Colds are caused by up to 200 different viruses.
  • Hayfever is caused by a normally harmless substance that triggers an allergic reaction in the body. These substances, called ‘allergens’ affect people differently. Common allergens for hayfever are pollen, animal fur, dust mites or fungal spores.

Although there are some differences, cold and hayfever symptoms overlap quite a bit. The most important difference is that colds usually don’t last longer than 14 days, whereas hayfever can last as long as you are exposed to the allergen, which can sometimes be months. Also, cold symptoms take a few days to appear after infection with a virus, whereas hayfever symptoms can begin immediately after exposure to an allergen. Colds and hayfever can occur year round, though more common in winter and spring, respectively. Common symptoms of colds and hayfever are:

  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Itching and watering eyes
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy/blocked nose
  • Headache3
  • Fever may also accompany some colds

How to help prevent colds and hayfever

Supporting your immune system can help you to fight colds and hayfever, and help reduce the risk of the occurrence. Some tips to consider are:

  • Avoidance – if you experience hayfever, try to stay indoors as much as possible if the pollen count is high – such as in spring, on windy days and after thunderstorms. Also reduce your exposure to dust and dust mites as well as animals and animal hair. It can be hard to avoid the allergens and even difficult to determine what the allergen is.2 If this is the case, other lifestyle practices to support the immune system may be beneficial.
  • Maintain a healthy diet- eating plenty of colourful fruit and vegetables is a great defence for colds and allergies and may support a healthy immune system. Citrus fruits such as orange, kiwifruit and strawberries are high in vitamin C, an important nutrient for the immune system. To increase your intake of the immune-supporting mineral zinc, try to eat pumpkin and sunflower seeds, oysters and seafood.
  • Sleep well- it is important to get adequate sleep as part of a healthy lifestyle and to support the health of the immune system. If you struggle in this area, try adopting a regular bedtime and wake time, eliminate all technology from the bedroom and ensure that the bedroom is dark and quiet enough. Adults should aim for 7-8 hours of quality sleep, children require more.
  • Manage stress- it is easy to underestimate the impact stress has on our immune system. Stress can be psychological, emotional, chemical or physiological. Manage stress by practicing relaxation techniques such as yoga, tai chi and meditation.
  • Practice good hygiene- this can protect you from contracting contagious illnesses such as colds. Good hygiene means covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and throwing tissues away immediately after use. Wash hands often as this will reduce the likelihood of picking up germs from surfaces. Also avoid touching nose, mouth and eyes as germs are spread this way.4

There are many nutritional and herbal remedies which may assist in supporting the immune system and managing hayfever and colds. The following herbs and nutrients may support immune system function:

Herbal support:

  • Andrographis and Echinacea– may reduce the frequency and severity of mild upper respiratory tract infections, such as colds. These herbs may also help to relieve symptoms of the common cold.
  • Garlic – may provide relief from mucous congestion and colds. If you do not like the taste in your cooking, it is available in supplement form.
  • Horseradish – this herb is traditionally used in Western herbal medicine to help relieve the symptoms of hayfever and the common cold and may help relieve excess mucous in the respiratory passages.
  • Marshmallow –soothes and relieves irritation, especially of mucous membrane surfaces. It may help maintain the immune system and provide relief from an irritating and dry cough.

Nutritional Support

  • Vitamin C -may maintain the function of the immune system and reduce the duration, severity and symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections, such as colds.
  • Zinc – this important mineral supports healthy immune system function. Good sources of zinc include oysters, seafood and pumpkin seeds.
  • Cod liver oil – this nutritious oil is a good source of vitamin A and D and may maintain the performance of the immune system. Vitamin A is required to maintain healthy mucous membranes in the respiratory system (mucous membranes are the first line of defence in the immune system).

Frequently asked questions

My nose is running and I am sneezing a lot, how do I know if I have a cold or hayfever?

Unfortunately, it’s often hard to tell initially– even for doctors – as there are many overlapping symptoms. A cold does not usually last longer than 14 days and symptoms start a few days after exposure to a virus whereas hayfever can last a lot longer and is due to exposure to an allergen.3

Is hayfever contagious?

Allergies such as hayfever are not contagious, although some people may inherit a tendency towards them.3

Why do some people suffer from hayfever and others don’t?

People with hayfever have an immune system that at some point has mistakenly identified something harmless, such as dust mites, as a threat. After exposure to this ‘threat’ the body then produces chemicals such as histamine which cause the symptoms of hayfever such as runny nose and sneezing.