Understanding Eye Allergies

When you say, "I have allergies," people expect you to sneeze. But your nose isn’t the only part of your body that gets hit during an allergy attack. You can also have red, swollen, and itchy eyes.

The usual suspects -- pollen, dust mites, pet dander, feathers, and other indoor or outdoor allergens -- can set off eye allergy symptoms. To treat them, find out what triggers them and stay ahead of the symptoms. Eye drops and other medications can bring relief.

Eye Allergies Triggers

Eye allergies are also known as "allergic conjunctivitis." Just like any other allergic reaction, they are caused by a misfiring of the immune system, the body's natural defense mechanism.

When you have allergies, your body reacts to things that aren't really harmful, like pollen, dust mites, mold, or pet dander. It releases histamine, a chemical that causes swelling and inflammation. The blood vessels in your eyes swell and your eyes get red, teary, and itchy.

You can be allergic to:

  • Pollen from grasses, weeds, and trees. These are the most common kinds of eye allergies and are called seasonal allergic conjunctivitis.
  • Dust, pet dander, and other indoor allergens. These eye allergies last year-round and are called chronic (perennial) conjunctivitis.
  • Makeup, perfume, or other chemicals can trigger eye allergies called contact conjunctivitis.
  • An allergy to contact lenses, called giant papillary conjunctivitis, makes eyes sensitive and red.

Symptoms to Watch For

You may start to have symptoms as soon as the eyes come in contact with the allergen, or you may not have symptoms for two to four days.

Symptoms of eye allergies include:

  • Red, irritated eyes
  • Itchiness
  • Tearing or runny eyes
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Soreness, burning, or pain
  • Sensitivity to light

Usually you’ll also have other allergy symptoms, such as a stuffy, runny nose and sneezing.

Treating Eye Allergies

Some of the same medicines you use for nasal allergies work for eye allergies. For quick relief, over-the-counter eye drops and pills can help.

Antihistamine Pills and Eye Drops

Antihistamine pills and liquids work by blocking histamine to relieve watery, itchy eyes. They include cetirizine (Zyrtec), diphenhydramine (Benadryl), fexofenadine (Allegra), or  loratadine (Alavert, Claritin), among others. Some may cause drowsiness.

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Antihistamine eye drops work well for itchy, watery eyes. You may need to use them several times a day, but don’t use the over-the-counter kinds for more than 2-3 days. Prescription kinds include azelastine hydrochloride (Optivar), emedastine difumarate (Emadine), levocabastine (Livostin), and olopatadine (Patanol).

They are often combined with other kinds of drops, including some that shrink swollen blood vessels in your eye. You shouldn’t use these kinds of drops, called decongestant eye drops, for more than a few days at a time. Don’t use them at all if you have glaucoma.

Over-the-counter antihistamines include cetirizine ophthalmic (Zerviate) and ketotifen fumarate (Claritin Eye, Refresh Eye Itch Relief).

Other Kinds of Eye Drops

Some eye drops work only when you take them before your symptoms hit. They take longer to work than antihistamine eye drops, but the effects last longer. Sometimes they are combined with antihistamines. These eye drops need a prescription:

Ketorolac (Acular or Acuvail0 is another kind of eye drop. It relieves itchy eyes, usually in about an hour. It can sting or burn at first.

Steroid eye drops like loteprednol (Alrex and Lotemax) treat severe, long-lasting eye allergies. They are usually used only for a short time because they can cause serious side effects.

If you’re still having symptoms, your doctor may suggest allergy shots. With allergy shots, your body is exposed to increasing amounts of an allergen over time and gradually gets used to it. Depending on the cause of your allergies, oral tablets or drops that work much like allergy shots could be used instead.

 

Other Ways to Reduce Symptoms

  • Wear sunglasses when you go outside. They'll block some of the pollen and other outdoor allergens from getting into your eyes.
  • Rinse your eyes with water or apply a cold, wet washcloth.
  • Use lubricating eye drops (artificial tears) to moisten dry eyes and wash out allergens.
  • Take out your contact lenses.
  • Don’t rub your eyes, no matter how much they itch. It will only make the irritation worse.

Call your doctor right away if you develop severe eye pain or vision loss.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Alan Kozarsky, MD on July 03, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

University of Illinois Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Services: "Allergic Conjunctivitis."

American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: "Eye Allergies."

American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus: "Allergic Conjunctivitis."

Conn's Current Therapy, Bope, Rakel, Kellerman, eds; Saunders Elsevier, 2009.

Bielory L, Immunology and Allergy Clinics of North America, February 2008.

News release, FDA.

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