Spring is in the air… this must be true as a large number of our patients have come in with symptoms of itchy, watery and red eyes! Did you know, 15-20% of people with allergies will have a form of ocular involvement? While the majority of allergy sufferers will self-manage their condition, your optometrist can offer important advice and prescribe treatments if needed.
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 build-up of allergens and other debris on your lenses.
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 however if you find yourself using these drops frequently you should talk to your optometrist as there can be side-effects from over-using these drops.
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.
- 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).
- Non steroidal 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.
Eye Allergy Tips
1. Get an early start. See your eye doctor before allergy symptoms start this year to learn how to reduce your sensitivity to allergens.
2. Try to avoid what’s causing your eye allergies, whenever possible.
3. Don’t rub your eyes if they itch! This will release more histamine and make your eye allergy symptoms worse.
4. Use plenty of artificial tears to wash airborne allergens from your eyes. Ask your eye doctor for the best brands.
5. Cut down your contact lens wear or switch to daily disposable lenses to reduce the build-up of allergens on your lenses.
6. Consider purchasing an air purifier for your home, and purchase an allergen-trapping filter for your furnace.