Eye allergies: Relief for itchy and watery eyes
Eye allergies — red, itchy, watery eyes that are bothered by the same irritants that cause sneezing and a runny nose among seasonal allergy sufferers — are very common.
In some cases, eye allergies also can play a role in conjunctivitis and other eye infections.
If you think you have eye allergies, here are a few things you should know — including helpful tips on how to get relief from your red, itchy, watery eyes.
What causes eye allergies
Allergens are normally harmless substances that cause problems for individuals who are predisposed to allergic reactions. The most common airborne allergens that cause eye allergies are pollen, mould, dust and pet hair.
Eye allergies can also be caused by reactions to certain cosmetics or eye drops that contain preservatives, including artificial tears used for treating dry eyes .
Food allergies and allergic reactions to bee stings or other insect bites typically do not affect the eyes as severely as airborne allergens do.
Eye allergy relief
To get relief from your eye allergies and itchy, watery eyes, you can take a few approaches:
The best approach to controlling your eye allergy symptoms is to do everything you can to limit your exposure to common allergens that you know you are sensitive to.
For example, on days when the pollen count is high, stay indoors as much as possible, and if you have an air conditioner, run it to filter the air. Use high quality filters that can trap common allergens and replace the filters frequently.
When you do go outdoors during allergy season, wear wraparound sunglasses to help shield your eyes from pollen, rye grass, etc., and drive with your windows closed.
Remove your contacts
As the surface of contact lenses can attract and accumulate airborne allergens, consider wearing glasses instead of contacts during allergy season or consider switching to daily disposable contacts. You can discard these after a single use to avoid the buildup of allergens and other debris on your lenses.
Often, the best choice if allergies are bothering your eyes is to discontinue wearing contacts altogether — at least until all your allergy symptoms are gone. Also, wearing spectacles with photochromic lenses can reduce allergy-related light sensitivity and can help shield your eyes from airborne allergens.
Use eye drops
Eye allergies are so common there are many brands of non-prescription eye drops available that are formulated to relieve itchiness, redness and watery eyes caused by allergies.
If your eye allergy symptoms are relatively mild, non-prescription eye drops for allergy relief may work very well for you and may be less expensive than prescription eye drops or other medication. Ask your optometrist to recommend a brand to try.
Ask your doctor about prescription medications
If your allergy symptoms are relatively severe or over-the-counter eye drops are ineffective at providing relief, you may need your doctor to prescribe a stronger medication.
Prescription or over the counter eye drops and oral medications used to relieve eye allergies include:
Part of the body's natural allergic response is the release of histamine, a substance that dilates blood vessels making the walls of blood vessels abnormally permeable.
Symptoms caused by histamine include a runny nose and itchy, watery eyes. Antihistamines reduce allergic reactions by blocking the attachment of histamine to cells in the body that produce an allergic response.
Decongestants help shrink swollen nasal passages for easier breathing. They also reduce the size of blood vessels on the white (sclera) of the eye to relieve red eyes. Combination drugs are available that contain both an antihistamine and a decongestant.
Mast cell stabilisers
These medications cause changes in histamine-containing cells located in tissues throughout the body, including the conjunctiva of the eye and eyelids, that prevent them from releasing of histamine and related mediators of allergic reactions.
As it may take several weeks for the full effects of mast cell stabilisers to take effect, as a method to prevent or reduce the severity of future allergic reactions, these medications are best used before allergy season starts (rather than to treat acute allergic symptoms that arise once the season starts).
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
Also called NSAIDs, these eye drops can be prescribed to decrease swelling, inflammation and other symptoms associated with seasonal allergic conjunctivitis (one of the symptoms of hay fever).
Corticosteroid eye drops are sometimes prescribed to provide relief from acute eye allergy symptoms. Potential side effects of long-term use of these medications include high eye pressure, glaucoma and cataracts, so they are typically prescribed for short-term use only.
Inquire about immunotherapy
If none of the above measures are effective, ask your GP about immunotherapy. This is a treatment in which an allergy specialist injects you with small amounts of allergens to help you gradually build up immunity and thereby decrease allergic reactions.
Eye allergies self-test
Take this quiz to see if you might have eye allergies. Always see an optometrist near you if you suspect you have an eye condition needing care.
Do allergies run in your family?
Do your eyes often itch, particularly during spring pollen season?
Have you ever been diagnosed with conjunctivitis?
Are you allergic to certain animals, such as cats?
Do you often need antihistamines and/or decongestants to control sneezing, coughing and congestion?
When pollen is in the air, are your eyes less red and itchy when you stay indoors under an air conditioner?
Do your eyes begin tearing when you wear certain cosmetics or lotions, or when you're around certain strong perfumes?
If you answered "yes" to most of these questions, then you may have eye allergies. Make an appointment with an optometrist or ophthalmologist to determine the best course of action.
Eye allergies and contact lenses
Contact lens discomfort is a common complaint during allergy season, leading some wearers to question whether they are becoming allergic to contact lenses.
The issue of being allergic to contact lenses also comes up from time to time when a person starts wearing silicone hydrogel contact lenses after successfully wearing standard soft (hydrogel) contact lenses and starts to experience allergy-like symptoms.
Studies have shown that the culprit behind eye allergies associated with contact lens wear is not an allergic reaction to the contact lens itself, but to substances that accumulate on the surface of the lenses.
In the case of switching from regular soft contacts to silicone hydrogel lenses, the surface and chemical characteristics of the lens material may attract lens deposits more readily than the previous lens material, causing discomfort.
Many optometrist believe the best type of soft contact lenses for people prone to eye allergies are daily disposable contact lenses that are discarded after a single use, which decreases the build-up of allergens and other debris on the lens surface.
Silicone hydrogel often is the preferred lens material for these lenses, because it allows significantly more oxygen to pass through the lens, compared with conventional soft contact lens materials.
Page published in March 2020
Page updated in September 2020