People who have allergies are often quick to seek help for symptoms like sneezing, sniffling, and nasal congestion. But allergies can affect the eyes, too, causing red, itchy, burning, and watery eyes and swollen eyelids. The good news is that the same treatments and self-help strategies that ease nasal allergy symptoms work for eye allergies, too.
Eye allergies, also called ocular allergies or allergic conjunctivitis, affect one in five Americans. Though the symptoms they cause can be annoying -- not to mention unbecoming -- they pose little threat to eyesight other than temporary blurriness. But red, itchy, burning, and puffy eyes can be caused also by infections and other conditions that do threaten eyesight. So, it's smart to see your doctor if eye symptoms don't get better with self-help strategies or over-the-counter allergy remedies.
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Like all allergies, eye allergies are caused by a glitch in the body’s immune system. The trouble starts when the conjunctiva (the mucous membrane that lines the eyelids and covers the whites of the eyes) comes into contact with something that, while actually harmless, is seen as a threat. In a mistaken attempt to fight off the threat, the immune system makes antibodies that cause your eyes to release histamine and other substances. That, in turn, makes eyes red, itchy, and watery. Eye allergy symptoms can happen alone or along with nasal allergy symptoms.
Allergies: Seasonal and Perennial
There are two types of eye allergies: seasonal, which are more common, and perennial.
Seasonal allergies happen only at certain times of the year—usually early spring through summer and into autumn. They’re caused by exposure to allergens in the air, commonly pollen from grasses, trees, and weeds, as well as spores from molds.
Perennial allergies occur throughout the year. They’re caused mostly by exposure to dust mites, feathers (as in bedding) and animal (pet) dander. Other substances, including perfumes, smoke, chlorine, air pollution, cosmetics, and certain medicines, can also play a role.
Sometimes, it’s easy to tell what’s causing an allergy -- for example, if symptoms strike when you go outside on a windy, high-pollen-count day, or when a furry friend climbs onto your lap. If it’s not clear just what you’re allergic to, a doctor can give you a simple test to find out.