An estimated 50 million Americans suffer from all types of allergies. Approximately 4% of allergy sufferers have eye allergies as their first sign that they even have allergies! Allergies can be triggered by many substances. Seasonal allergies (also known as hay fever) are often caused by the grass, tree, and weed pollens abundant in spring and late summer. Other types of allergies, such as pet dander and dust, can affect your eyes year-round. Various substances called irritants (such as dirt, smoke, chlorine, etc.) and even viruses and bacteria, can compound the effect of eye allergies, or even cause symptoms similar to eye allergies for people who are not even allergic.
Why allergies occur
Your body’s immune system protects you against illness by staying alert for harmful agents entering the body. If this occurs, the immune system protects you by neutralizing, removing, or destroying the harmful agent. Allergies occur when the immune system mistakes a normally harmless substance, such as pollen or mold, as a harmful agent. The body responds by producing certain chemicals to neutralize the substance. These chemicals, called histamines, are what cause the itching, redness, swelling, and irritation that you experience. Many substances can trigger an allergic reaction. Most allergens that cause eye symptoms are airborne. Plant pollen, mold, dust, and animal dander (skin particles) are the allergens that most often affect the eyes.
Allergies can lead to a condition called allergic conjunctivitis. This is an inflammation of the conjunctiva (the membrane that covers the inside of the eyelid and the white part of the eye). It may occur at about the same time each year, when the allergen is most abundant (seasonal allergic conjunctivitis). The common symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis are red, itchy, burning, tearing, swollen eyes, along with a gritty sensation. These symptoms may be accompanied by a runny or itchy nose, sneezing, coughing, or a sinus headache. Many also find that their vision is temporarily blurred, or that they feel distracted, unproductive, or tired.
Those in southern California do not deal as much with plant allergies as those in the Midwest or on the East
Coast, but we do have pollution and items in the air which may trigger the exact same reactions.
Relief of irritated eyes
It is impossible to escape all allergies. However, they can be limited, and you can take steps to relieve your symptoms. When possible, limit exposure to allergens. Stay inside when pollen or mold counts are especially high. Also stay away from vents, fans, and air conditioners that can introduce these allergens into the air. For cleaner indoor air, use air conditioner filters that are designed to reduce allergens in the air. Over-the-counter products, such as antihistamine eye drops, can reduce redness, itchiness and other symptoms. Artificial tears can also help by flushing allergens out of the eyes. These products are available at most drug stores. Ask our optometrists for their recommendations. Not all products are right for you. When over-the-counter products do not alleviate the symptoms, prescription medications are the next in line to combat the allergens. Let our optometrists know, so they can write the best prescription for you and your eyes. Other options such as allergy shots may reduce symptoms and the need for other medication.
Allergies and contact lenses
An allergic reaction can make the eye overly sensitive. Allergy symptoms such as itching, dryness, and tearing can make wearing contact lenses uncomfortable. The protein contained in the tears from your irritated eyes can build up on the surface of the contact lenses. This causes even more irritation to the eyes, which causes more tearing, and the cycle continues.
Severe, recurring eye irritation causes some contact lens wearers to develop giant papillary conjunctivitis (GPC). This inflammation leads to the formation of tiny bumps on the inside of the eyelids, making wearing contact lenses especially painful or even impossible to wear. Allergies can also be due to makeup, the material of the contact lens, or the contact lens solution itself.
What contact lens wearers can do
Some eye symptoms and discomfort can be reduced with proper cleaning of your contact lenses. The following tips may help:
- To clean a contact lens, hold it in the palm of your hand, and rub the lens in lens cleaner to remove dirt, debris, oils, pollens, and some proteins adhering to the lens.
- Make sure to use the lens care system recommended by our optometrists. Ingredients found in certain lens care systems can make eye irritation worse.
- Replace your contact lenses and case frequently. This can help reduce eye irritation.