If you are one of the millions of Americans with eye allergies, then you know how annoying they can be. While allergies may affect only your eyes, more often nasal allergy symptoms are also present, such as sneezing, a stuffy nose, and respiratory symptoms. If you are like many allergy sufferers, you treat your nasal and respiratory allergy symptoms and ignore your itchy, red, watery eyes. However, treating your eye symptoms is not impossible. More than half of all reported cases occur in children, and the majority of people with allergies will have symptoms before the age of 30. However, allergies can develop at any age. A combination of genetic and environmental factors is believed to be the reason why allergies affect some people and not others.
What Is Causing My Eye Allergies?
Allergic eye disease, also called allergic conjunctivitis or ocular allergy, is a condition in which an allergen irritates the conjunctiva, the delicate membrane covering the eye and the inside of the eyelid. The most common outdoor allergens are grass, tree, and weed pollens. Because the amount of pollen in the air varies depending on the season, these are known as seasonal allergens. If your symptoms typically worsen during seasons when pollen counts are high, then you probably have seasonal allergic conjunctivitis, the most common type of eye allergy. Dust mites, pet hair and dander, and molds are common indoor allergens. These can cause eye allergies at any time of year. This type of eye allergy is known as perennial allergic conjunctivitis. Symptoms typically occur when you have been in close contact with or had significant exposure to an indoor allergen. Other triggers of eye allergies include eye drops or creams and cosmetics. Contact conjunctivitis can be caused by other chemicals that irritate the conjunctiva in sensitive persons.
How Can I Spot Symptoms of Eye Allergies?
In persons with eye allergies, the immune system overreacts to an allergen and produces immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies that cause mast cells to release histamine and other chemicals, which results in an allergic reaction. The reaction often manifests as:
- Swelling or puffiness
- Tearing, or watery eyes
- Pain, burning, or soreness in one or both eyes
Although eye allergies are very uncomfortable and troublesome, your vision is usually unaffected. Some people may have temporary blurred vision. Symptoms typically last for several hours after you are no longer in contact with the allergen. You should be aware that symptoms of eye allergies can resemble those of many eye infections. In people with eye allergies, both eyes are usually affected, whereas an eye infection may affect only one eye. If you’ve never had eye allergies but suddenly have itchy, red, and swollen eyes, it is best to contact your doctor.
Diagnosing Eye Allergies — When Do I Need a Doctor?
Your health care provider will perform a physical examination and ask questions to determine whether you have an allergy, and if so, what may be causing it. Providing a good description of your symptoms and when and where they begin will help your doctor make the correct diagnosis. Because eye symptoms can occur with a variety of illnesses, your doctor will need to consider whether you may have another eye disorder, an infection, or other allergy (such as a food allergy or an allergic reaction to a medication).
Some eye conditions that may be mistaken for eye allergies are infective conjunctivitis, acute glaucoma, keratitis, and iritis. Even after a thorough clinical evaluation and review of your medical history, a referral to an ophthalmologist may be necessary for a definitive diagnosis. Your doctor may recommend allergy testing to confirm that your eye symptoms are in fact caused by an allergen. Allergy testing is done by an allergist, and most commonly involves skin testing. You may be given a prick test, in which a small amount of the suspected allergen is placed on the skin via a needle. A positive prick test will reveal swelling and redness of the skin. Other types of skin tests include patch testing and intradermal testing. You may also undergo blood testing to measure the levels of IgE antibodies in your blood. In some instances, an elimination test is done. You simply avoid certain items to see if your symptoms resolve. This type of testing is often used to check for food or medication allergies. A variety of other methods are used to test for allergies. Although the results may not always pinpoint the precise cause of your eye allergy, it can help identify potential allergic triggers and guide further evaluation and treatment.
How Can I Relieve My Eye Allergies?
It has been estimated that about 40 percent of the population in the United States have ocular allergy symptoms. Eye allergies frequently occur in conjunction with nasal allergies (allergic rhinitis). Many patients who seek their doctor’s help regarding their allergies are treated for both nasal and eye symptoms. Eye allergies can be treated with one of several different medications, or a combination of medications, depending on the type and severity of your symptoms, your age, and overall health. These medications include:
Antihistamines in the form of eye drops can provide fast relief of symptoms. They are applied to the eyes twice or three times a day. Some people prefer taking antihistamines by mouth. These are usually taken once a day. Antihistamines block the effects of histamines that are produced by the body when the immune system reacts to a foreign substance. Antihistamines can reduce eye allergy symptoms as well as nasal symptoms, but they often cause drowsiness. It is important to avoid driving or operating heavy machinery when taking an antihistamine.
Mast Cell Stabilizers
You will have to take this medicine for a period of time before any beneficial effect becomes apparent. However, the effects last much longer than those of antihistamines, which provide temporary relief of symptoms. Often an antihistamine is taken at the same time as the mast cell stabilizer until the mast cell stabilizers start to work. These agents are often prescribed as eye drops. A mast cell stabilizer reduces the release of inflammation-causing chemicals from mast cells; thus preventing the release of histamine.
This treatment is used only in patients with severe symptoms. Corticosteroids reduce swelling and inhibit the body’s immune response. Corticosteroids can be beneficial in certain circumstances, but long-term use is generally avoided because it can lead to adverse effects.
Is There a Way to Prevent Eye Allergies?
You can prevent and manage eye allergies by doing the following:
- Avoid the allergen when possible
- Refrain from wearing your contact lenses until symptoms have cleared up completely
- Stop rubbing your eyes
- Use an air cleaner in your home
- Keep your eyes clean