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Do you have red, itchy eyes? You may be suffering from a condition that affects millions of Americans: eye allergies. Eye allergies sometimes cause significant discomfort, often interrupting daily activities with annoying symptoms.

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    A person develops eye allergies when the immune system overreacts to an allergen. An allergen is a word for any substance that can cause an allergic reaction. Allergens may be found indoors or outdoors and include things such as grass, tree and weed pollen, dust, and pet dander. When exposed to these allergens, cells in the eyes release histamines and other chemicals in an effort to protect the eyes. It is this chemical reaction that causes blood vessels inside the eyes to swell, and the eyes to become itchy, red and watery. Allergies can also trigger other problems, such as conjunctivitis (pink eye).

    Types of Eye Allergies:

    Eye allergies are generally categorized into two types: seasonal allergic conjunctivitis (SAC) and perennial allergic conjunctivitis (PAC).

    • SAC:
      The most common type of eye allergy; people affected by SAC experience symptoms during certain seasons of the year.
    • PAC:
      These types of eye allergies are usually caused by dust, pet dander or other allergens that are often present year-round.


    The following symptoms commonly occur with eye allergies:

    • Itching
    • Redness
    • Tearing
    • Swelling
    • Burning
    • Blurry vision
    • Eye mucous

    Although the symptoms of eye allergies can be extremely annoying and uncomfortable, they usually cause no harm to the eyes.

    Risk Factors:

    Allergic eye reactions occur when a person is sensitive to an allergen. Eye allergies often affect the conjunctiva, the clear covering that covers the front part of the eyeball. This clear covering is the same type of material that lines the inside surface of the nose. Because the two areas are so similar, allergens can trigger an allergic response in both areas. Therefore, people with nasal allergies may also suffer from eye allergies.


    An optometrist or ophthalmologist can usually diagnose eye allergies based on a patient’s symptoms. To confirm the diagnosis, the eye doctor may use a slit lamp to examine the front part of the eye. This examination may reveal the presence of conjunctival and eyelid swelling and dilated blood vessels, which would confirm the diagnosis. In some cases, the doctor may use an instrument to scrape the conjunctiva to check for the presence of eosinophils, cells that are present in severe cases of eye allergies.


    The most effective treatment for eye allergies includes minimizing exposure to the allergens that are triggering the allergic response. This may include staying indoors when pollen counts are high, wearing sunglasses to prevent pollens from entering the eyes, reducing the amount of dust present in the home, and cleaning floors with a damp mop instead of a dry sweeper. Those suffering from eye allergies may also try avoiding irritants such as cigarette smoke, air pollution and strong odors. Contact lenses should also be avoided while allergy symptoms are present, as symptoms can cause discomfort with contact lenses.


    Both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications can be beneficial to those suffering from eye allergies. OTC artificial tears, decongestants and antihistamines can be effective in treating short-term symptoms. Artificial tears help flush the allergens out of the eyes. Decongestant eyedrops are available without a prescription to help alleviate eye redness.

    Prescription medications are highly effective in relieving symptoms. Antihistamines reduce itching, redness, and swelling, usually rather quickly. Mast cell stabilizers may be used to help prevent the release of histamines, thus reducing symptoms.


    Eye Health Media Guide. “Allergies”, pages 2.8 – 2.11. Alcon, Inc., 2008.

    Allergies of the Eye.” University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center, 2008.

    Eye Allergies: How To Get Relief From Itchy, Watery Eyes

    The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology estimates that 50 million people in the United States have seasonal allergies, and its prevalence is increasing — affecting up to 30 percent of adults and up to 40 percent of children. In addition to having symptoms of sneezing, congestion and a runny nose, most of these allergy sufferers also experience itchy eyes, watery eyes, red eyes and swollen eyelids.

    And in some cases, eye allergies can play a role in conjunctivitis (pink eye) 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.

    Red, itchy, watery eyes are the distinctive signs and symptoms of allergies.

    What Causes Eye Allergies

    Normally harmless substances that cause problems for individuals who are predisposed to allergic reactions are called allergens. The most common airborne allergens that cause eye allergies are pollen, mold, dust and pet dander.

    Eye allergies also can be caused by reactions to certain cosmetics or eye drops, including artificial tears used for treating dry eyes that contain preservatives.

    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:

    Avoiding allergens. As the old saying goes: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” (By the way, Benjamin Franklin said that — the same guy who invented bifocals!) The best approach to controlling your eye allergy symptoms is to do everything you can to limit your exposure to common allergens you are sensitive to.

    For example, on days when the pollen count is high, stay indoors as much as possible, with the air conditioner running to filter the air. Use high-quality furnace 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, ragweed, etc., and drive with your windows closed.

    Removing your contacts. Because the surface of contact lenses can attract and accumulate airborne allergens, consider wearing only eyeglasses during allergy season. Or consider switching to daily disposable contacts that you discard 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 eyeglasses with photochromic lenses can reduce allergy-related sensitivity to light and can help shield your eyes from airborne allergens.

    Over-the-counter eye drops. Because eye allergies are so common, there are a number of 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, over-the-counter 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 eye doctor to recommend a brand to try.

    Prescription medications. If your allergy symptoms are relatively severe or over-the-counter eye drops are ineffective at providing relief, you may need your eye doctor to prescribe a stronger medication. Prescription eye drops and oral medications used to relieve eye allergies include:

    Antihistamines. Part of the body’s natural allergic response is the release of histamine, a substance that dilates blood vessels and 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. 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. Common decongestants include phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine. Combination drugs are available that contain both an antihistamine and a decongestant.

    Mast cell stabilizers. These medications cause changes in mast cells that prevent them from releasing of histamine and related mediators of allergic reactions. Because it may take several weeks for the full effects of mast cell stabilizers to take effect, these medications are best used before allergy season starts as a method to prevent or reduce the severity of future allergic reactions (rather than to treat acute allergic symptoms that already exist).

    Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. NSAID eye drops may be prescribed to decrease swelling, inflammation and other symptoms associated with seasonal allergic conjunctivitis also called hay fever.

    Steroids. Corticosteroid eye drops are sometimes prescribed to provide relief from acute eye allergy symptoms. But potential side effects of long-term use of these medications include high eye pressure, glaucoma, and cataracts, so they typically are prescribed for short-term use only.

    Immunotherapy. This is a treatment where an allergy specialist injects you with small amounts of allergens to help you gradually build up immunity.

    Common allergens include pollen, animal dander and mold.


    Take this quiz to see if you might have eye allergies. Always consult your doctor 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 “pink eye” (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 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 contacts 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 experiences 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 eye care practitioners believe the best type of soft contact lenses for people prone to eye allergies are daily disposable lenses that are discarded after a single use, which decreases the buildup 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.

    SOURCE: All About Vision – Dr. Heiting