Eye allergies, also called allergic conjunctivitis, are quite common. They occur when the eyes react to something that irritates them (called an allergen). The eyes produce a substance called histamine to fight off the allergen. As a result, the eyelids and conjunctiva become red, swollen and itchy. The eyes can tear and burn. Unlike other kinds of conjunctivitis, eye allergies are not spread from person to person.
People who have eye allergies usually have nasal allergies as well, with an itchy, stuffy nose and sneezing. It is usually a temporary condition associated with seasonal allergies.
You can get eye allergies from pet dander, dust, pollen, smoke, perfumes, or even foods. If you cannot avoid the cause, your allergies can be more severe. You can have significant burning and itching and even sensitivity to light.
The most common eye allergy symptoms include:
- red, swollen or itchy eyes
- burning or tearing of the eyes
- sensitivity to light
If accompanied by nasal allergies, you may also have a stuffy, itchy nose and sneezing. You can also have a headache, an itchy or sore throat or coughing.
The key to treating eye allergies is to avoid or limit contact with the substance causing the problem. But you have to know what to avoid. If necessary, an allergist can perform a skin or blood test to help identify the specific allergen(s). Below are ways to treat the symptoms.
Artificial tear drops help relieve eye allergies temporarily by washing allergens from the eye. They also relieve dry, irritated eyes by adding moisture. You can use these drops, available without a prescription, up to six times a day. You may use them as often as you need to if they are preservative free.
Decongestants (with or without antihistamines)
Decongestants reduce redness in the eyes from allergies. They are available as over-the-counter eye drops. If the decongestant eye drops you choose include an antihistamine, they can relieve itchiness as well. You should not use these types of eye drops for more than two to three days. Longer-term use actually increases your irritating symptoms.
Oral antihistamines may be somewhat helpful in relieving itchy eyes. But they can make eyes dry and even worsen eye allergy symptoms.
Eye drops with both an antihistamine to relieve itchiness and a mast-cell stabilizer help prevent eye allergies. You use them once or twice a day to relieve itching, redness, tearing and burning. How often you use them depends on which eye drop you choose.
Steroid eye drops can help treat chronic and severe eye allergy symptoms such as itching, redness and swelling.
If you are allergic to pollen, avoid going outdoors as much as possible when pollen counts are highest. Pollen counts are usually highest in the mid-morning and early evening. Also, avoid being outdoors when wind blows pollens around. When you are outdoors, sunglasses or eyeglasses can help to prevent pollen from getting into your eyes.
Keep your windows closed and use air conditioning, both in your car and home. This will help lower your exposure to pollen and other irritants while you are inside. Don’t use window fans, as they draw the pollen and other allergens inside. Keep your air conditioning units clean so they won’t cycle allergens inside.
If mold is an allergy trigger for you, recognize that high humidity can cause molds to grow. Aim to keep the humidity level in your home around 30 to 50 percent. Clean high-humidity areas like basements, bathrooms and kitchens often. Consider using a dehumidifier in particularly humid or moist places such as a basement.
If dust at home brings on your allergic conjunctivitis, try to keep dust mites away from your skin. Pay special attention to your bedroom. Use allergen-reducing covers for your bedding and especially for your pillows. Wash your bedding frequently with hot water that is at least 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
When cleaning floors, use a damp mop or rag instead of a dry dust mop or broom to trap the allergens.
If pets are a source of allergies for you, try to keep animals outside of the house as much as possible. It is particularly important not to allow a pet into your bedroom so that you can sleep in an allergen-free room. Consider hardwood or tile floors instead of carpeting, which traps the pet dander. Always wash your hands after touching a pet, and wash clothing that you have worn around pets.
Finally, always avoid rubbing your eyes, which only irritates them more.