Figuring out if it's a cold or allergies, plus choosing the right medicine, and how to use nasal spray the right way.

By Family Circle Editors
Photo by Getty Images

What is hay fever?

First of all, it’s not caused by hay and it doesn’t result in a fever. The proper name for this condition is allergic rhinitis and it occurs when pollen, dust mites or spores trigger your body to release a chemical called histamine as a defense mechanism. Histamine can lead to swelling and irritation in the nose as well as watery eyes.

Source: American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology; Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

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Signs it’s an allergy (and not something else)

Allergies and the common cold can look a lot alike…for about two weeks. If you’re still experiencing the following symptoms after 14 days, congrats—you likely have allergies.

  • Head: Headache 
  • Eyes: Itchiness, tearing, under-eye circles and puffiness
  • Nose: Itchiness, running, sneezing, congestion, postnasal drip, decreased sense of smell
  • Ears: Clogging
  • Throat: Soreness, coughing, itchiness
  • Body: Fatigue

Stock your medicine cabinet.

Choose a med that treats your specific symptoms.

For stuffy, runny nose and sneezing, try Flonase, Nasacort, or Rhinocort. 

Over-the-counter nasal corticosteroid sprays reduce inflammation in nasal passages and dry up mucous to quell congestion and drips for 24 hours. Start these in early March, before the first sniffles, and use them daily, says Anastasiya Kleva, MD, an allergist with ENT and Allergy Associates in New Rochelle, NY. They can take up to two weeks to work, and once symptoms start, it’s hard to catch up. 

For runny nose, itchy throat or nose, sneezing, and itchy, watery eyes, try Allegra, Claritin, Zyrtec or Xyzal. 

Antihistamines block histamine so you avoid the inflammation it can trigger. Xyzal and Zyrtec may cause drowsiness; take these at night to allow the sedation to wear off by morning.

Note: Apps like Medisafe and Mango Health remind you to take your meds.

Nasal spray tips 

Before using a nasal decongestant spray, which can reduce swelling in your nose, talk to your doctor. These products are intended to be used for no more than three days at a time. Anything longer than that can create rebound congestion, meaning the medicine causes stuffiness and makes the problem worse. 

How to use a nasal spray

Whether using a saline or medicated one, follow these steps to make each application less of a shock to your system:

  1. Blow your nose to clear nostrils. 
  2. Tilt head slightly forward (don’t throw your head back, which can send the medicine down your throat and cause gagging). 
  3. Hold one nostril closed.
  4.  Spray toward sides of your nose. (This may prevent bleeding.)
  5.  Sniff gently—don’t snort. 
  6. Breathe out slowly through your mouth after each spritz.
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