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Understanding Eye Allergies

Eye allergies causing red, puffy eyes? You're not alone -- millions of Americans deal with eye allergies, or allergic conjunctivitis.  A cold compress can give you a quick fix before heading out in public. But for long-term relief, you need to identify triggers and treat symptoms.

Eye Allergy Symptoms

Symptoms can include redness in the white of the eye or the inner eyelid. Other signs: itchy eyes, tearing, blurred vision, burning sensation, eyelid swelling, and sensitivity to light. Eye allergies can occur alone or with nasal allergies and the allergic skin condition eczema. The only way to know for sure if it's eye allergies is to see your doctor.

Why Allergies Make Eyes Red

Eye allergies happen when your eyes are exposed to the offending allergen -- say pet dander or pollen. Cells in your eyes called mast cells release histamine and other chemicals, causing inflammation. The result: itchy, red, and watery allergic eyes.

Don't Rub Your Eyes

It may be tempting, but rubbing itchy eyes can make things worse. Rubbing your eyes may cause the mast cells to release more of the chemicals that caused your eyes to itch in the first place! Instead, take contact lenses out (if you wear them), avoid eye makeup, and apply cool compresses to your eyes. Wash your hands often.

Eye Allergy Cover Up Tips

Apply a hypoallergenic concealer to help hide dark circles. Don't try to cover up with heavy makeup -- it will only call attention to red, watery eyes. Instead, emphasize another feature -- wear a pretty lipstick, for example.

Eye Allergy Triggers: Pollen

If your eyes well up around Mother Nature -- and not just because of all the beauty she inspires -- you may have seasonal allergic conjunctivitis. Grass, tree, and weed pollens are the worst offenders. When pollen counts are high, stay indoors, keep your windows closed and the air conditioner on. Wear sunglasses to keep pollen out of your eyes.

Indoor Eye Allergens: Pet Dander

Pet dander, dust mites, and molds top the list of indoor eye allergens. These triggers tend to cause symptoms all year long. To help control pet allergies, keep the pet out of your bedroom. No dog or cat, but can't resist playing with a friend's pet? Limit exposure by washing your hands immediately after you touch the pet. Change clothes as soon as you go home.

Mop Away Allergens

If dust mites trigger your runny, watery eyes, invest in bedding and pillowcases that keep them out. Wash sheets in hot water, and try to keep the humidity levels in your home between 30% and 50%. Clean floors with a damp mop. Don't sweep, which stirs up allergens.

Eye Allergies and Mold

If indoor molds cause eye problems, regularly clean bathrooms, kitchens, and basements where mold lurks.  Invest in a dehumidifier, and clean it often.  A high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter can help trap mold spores before they attack your eyes.

Treating Eye Allergies

Most drops for eye allergies may have the same medications used to treat nasal allergies: antihistamines, decongestants, and mast cell stabilizers. Antihistamines combat symptoms by blocking the effect of histamine, which can help with itching. Mast cell stabilizers reduce inflammation by preventing the release of chemicals such as histamines from mast cells.

Eye Allergy Drops

Tear substitutes rinse the allergens out of your eye and keep eyes moist. Decongestant drops shrink blood vessels in your eyes, which decreases redness. But using the decongestant drops long-term can actually make symptoms worse. Both kinds of eye drops are available over the counter. People with certain conditions should not use certain types of eye drops, so ask your doctor.

Oral Medicines for Eye Allergies

Oral antihistamines and decongestants may help control symptoms of eye allergies. However, oral antihistamines have a tendency to further dry out your eyes and may cause drowsiness. And some OTC decongestants have side effects, such as dizziness or excitability. People with certain conditions shouldn't take some kinds of oral allergy medications. Talk to your doctor.

Other Kinds of Eye Drops

Antihistamine eye drops reduce swelling, redness, and itching.  Some eye drops have both antihistamine and mast cell stabilizer properties. These drops are available OTC and by prescription. Other prescription options may include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug eye drops and steroid-based eye drops.

Can Allergy Shots Help?

Allergy shots work well for eye allergies. Allergy shots (immunotherapy) help your immune system get used to the substances that cause your allergy symptoms. They are usually an option for severe allergies. Treatment can take months, and you may still need to use medicine. Are you a candidate? Talk to your doctor.

Ending Eye Allergies

From prevention and OTC artificial tears to prescription eye drops and allergy shots, there is a lot you can do to take the sting out of your eye allergies. Develop a plan of action with your doctor so today is the last day you have to put up with red, watery and itchy eyes.

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Reviewed by Alan Kozarsky, MD on August 24, 2015