What is an eye allergy?
Better known as allergic conjunctivitis (AC), eye allergies can occur alone or, more commonly, in association with hay fever symptoms. If you have itching, tearing and redness of the conjunctival tissues of the eye (inside the lids and/or the white part of the eyeball), then you most likely have either seasonal or perennial (year-round) AC.
What causes eye allergy symptoms to occur?
Just like hay fever and allergic asthma, AC develops when the immune system overreacts to airborne allergens such as pollens, dust mites and household pets coming into direct contact with the eye. This direct allergen contact with the eye results in the release of histamine and other chemicals that cause blood vessels to swell and the eyes to become inflamed, watery and annoyingly itchy. Similar symptoms can sometimes result from non-specific (non-allergic) irritants such as cigarette smoke, chemical smells, perfumes, and smog.
What should I do if I think I have eye allergies?
Initially, it is best to think about cause. Do my eyes itch when I have hay fever symptoms, when I am exposed to pets, or at particular times of the year? Contact lenses can trap allergens behind the lens and actually intensify the symptoms. While the symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable and a bit of a cosmetic nightmare, AC is not directly harmful to overall eye health or vision.
Is there anything I can do to limit exposure to the allergens that cause the symptoms?
Wash your hands and clothing after coming in direct contact with pets.
Take precautions to reduce your exposure to dust mites in the home.
Always wear sunglasses when outside to help shield your eyes from airborne allergens.
Keep windows closed in the home during the day and use air-conditioning.
Avoid rubbing the eyes.
Are there any treatments I can try on my own?
Over-the-counter eye drops containing vasoconstrictors (reduce redness) are usually safe for short term use only. Prolonged use may cause a rebound effect - the symptoms get worse as a result of overuse of a medication.
Oral antihistamines may provide relief of the itching, but they can cause excessive dryness of the eyes and potentially worsen the symptoms.
How are eye allergies treated by a specialist?
If the symptoms are taking charge of your life, or if AC is associated with severe hay fever, it is best to seek the advice of an allergist. Skin testing will help to target the allergic triggers and guide environmental control measures to reduce exposure. There are a number of prescription allergy eye drops that can provide a great deal of relief and are safe for more prolonged use. Allergy immunotherapy shots can reduce AC symptoms and may be indicated if you also suffer from hay fever or allergic asthma.