What are allergies?
An allergy is a reaction that occurs when your immune system reacts to a foreign substance (called an allergen), such as trees and grasses, pollen, bee venom, pet dander, or certain foods. Allergic reactions that occur specifically in the eye are called either eye (ocular) allergies or allergic conjunctivitis.
Allergies in the eyes can an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the membrane that covers the inside of the eye and the white part of the eye. Generally this happens at the same time each year, when the allergen is most abundant.
What are the symptoms of allergies?
As far as eye allergies go, patients can have a wide variety of symptoms, including red, itchy, burning, and watery eyes. A gritty sensation or scratching in the eyes has also been noticed by many patients. When the allergies are severe enough, the eyelids can swell, be red, and develop rashes and flaking.
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.
What causes allergies?
Your body’s immune system protects you against illness by staying alert for harmful agents entering the body. When a harmful agent (or allergen) is encountered, the immune system protects you by neutralizing, removing, or destroying it. Allergies occur when the immune system encounters an allergen and responds by producing certain chemicals, called histamine, to neutralize the substance. Histamine is what specifically causes the itching, redness, swelling, and irritation that you experience.
Many substances can trigger an allergic reaction. Most allergens that cause eye symptoms are airborne. 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. Last but not least, medications, cosmetics, and certain jewelry and eyewear frame materials can cause problems as well.
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.
Who gets allergies?
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!
How are allergies diagnosed?
Eye allergies are always looked for at every comprehensive eye examination at Visualeyes Optometry. Yet, if there are no active allergens or inflammation, it may be difficult to tell. If there is a flare-up or current episode of allergies, a medical eye evaluation by one of our optometrists will confer that there are allergies, and a treatment plan will be discussed.
How are allergies treated?
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. Also, do not touch or rub your eyes. rinse the eyes with saline when exposed to allergens, and avoid heavy make-up.
Treating eye allergies is not a one-size-fits-all approach. There are many factors that go into finding the right treatment for you.
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. Allergy shots are also helpful for some patients.
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.
Some eye symptoms and discomfort can be reduced by following these helpful tips:
Clean your contact lens daily. 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. Daily disposable contact lenses are a great option for those patients with eye allergies.
Limit daily wear time.
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. Your optometrist will help you ease the symptoms of GPC. Daily contact lenses are a good option. Sometimes eye drops will need to be prescribed.
What is the prognosis with allergies?
When following the proper treatment regimen, eye allergies can definitely be controlled. Be sure to contact our office if you have any questions or concerns.