Did you know that one in five Americans suffer from eye allergies? We’re used to treating nasal allergies with nasal spray and decongestants, but sometimes we forget that allergies can affect our eyes, too. While itchy, red, watery eyes can be harmless, they can also harbor infections, so you should, well, keep an eye on them. Fortunately, many over-the-counter solutions and self-help strategies exist to keep your eye allergies at bay.
The main cause of eye allergies is a fault in the immune system. During an allergic reaction in the eye, the conjunctiva (the mucous membrane that covers the whites of your eyes) comes into contact with a harmless substance that it mistakes as a threat. To fight off this “threat,” your immune system makes antibodies that release histamines from your eyes–thus, the red-eye itchiness.
Indoor and outdoor allergens and other irritants can also contribute to your eye allergies. These can include:
- Indoor allergens: pet dander, dust, mold
- Outdoor allergens: pollens from grass, weeds, and flowers
- Other irritants: perfumes, cigarette smoke, or air pollution
Eye allergy symptoms can occur on their own, but they often accompany the sneezing and sniffling from those nasal allergies we all know and love. Common eye allergy symptoms include redness, watery discharge, and itchiness.
If your allergies are relatively minor, they tend to fall into one of two categories: seasonal or perennial. Seasonal allergic conjunctivitis (SAC) is the most common, and patients experience the common symptoms listed above in the spring, summer, or fall, depending on which type of pollen affects you the most. You might have puffy eyelids or be sensitive to light, and you may have a runny nose or congestion with nasal allergies in addition to your eye allergies. Perennial allergic conjunctivitis (PAC) brings year-round eye allergies but is slightly milder than SAC (with very similar symptoms). PAC is caused by dust mites, pet dander, and the like.
However, there are more severe eye allergies that you should be aware of, including vernal keratoconjunctivitis, atopic keratoconjunctivitis, contact allergic conjunctivitis, and giant papillary conjunctivitis.
- Vernal keratoconjunctivitis: This often occurs in boys and young men, especially those with asthma, and can impair vision if left untreated. Symptoms include itching, thick production of mucus, sensitivity to light, and the feeling of having something in your eye (which is called foreign body sensation).
- Atopic keratoconjunctivitis: This affects older patients, especially men with a history of allergic dermatitis, and can result in corneal scarring if left untreated. Symptoms include severe itching, burning, redness, and production of mucus that can cause eyelids to stick together when you sleep.
- Contact allergic conjunctivitis: This can result from irritation by contact lenses or proteins from tears that bind to the lens’ surface. Symptoms include redness, itching, mucous discharge, and discomfort from wearing your lenses.
- Giant papillary conjunctivitis: This is also associated with contact lenses–it’s a more severe form of contact allergic conjunctivitis. With this allergy, individual fluid sacs form in the upper lining of your inner eyelid. Symptoms include itching, puffiness, tears, mucous discharge, blurred vision, foreign body sensation, and very poor tolerance for contact lenses.
The first step to treating any eye allergies is to stop the symptoms before they start. For outdoor allergies, try to stay inside as much as possible when the pollen count is high, especially during mid-morning, early evening, and windy days. Avoid using window fans if possible, since these can draw pollen, dust, or mold into the house. If you have to go outside, wear glasses or sunglasses to minimize the amount of pollen that can get into your eye, and try not to rub your eyes–this will only irritate them and make things worse.
When it comes to indoor allergens, keep the windows closed in your car and home when it’s allergy season–use air conditioning instead. If you’re allergic to a pet, keep it out of the house as much as possible; at the very least, keep Fluffy and Fido outside of your bedroom so that you don’t have to worry about those allergens when you sleep. Reduce your exposure to dust mites in your room by washing your bedding frequently in hot water, and keep your home’s humidity low (between 30 and 50 percent) to ward off mold.
If you’ve done all you can to prevent your symptoms but find your eye allergies persisting, you can still find relief. Both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription eye drops and medications can help you conquer your eye allergies.
OTC eye drops and medications include:
- Tear substitutes/artificial tears
- Decongestant eyedrops
- Oral antihistamines
Prescription eye drops and medications include:
- Antihistamine eye drops
- Mast cell stabilizer eyedrops
- NSAID eyedrops
- Corticosteroid eyedrops
- Nonsedating oral antihistamines
- Allergy shots (immunotherapy)
Regardless of your type of eye allergy, be sure to consult your eye doctor about the best treatment for your symptoms. Here at Williamson Eye Institute, we will work with you to determine exactly what your eye condition is and how we can help you for long-term health and allergy treatment. Relief is on the way!
At Williamson Eye Institute, we are committed to preserving and protecting our patients’ eye health throughout their lives. To find out more, visit our website or call our office to schedule a personal consultation. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.