People who have allergies are often quick to seek help for symptoms such as sneezing, sniffling, and nasal congestion. But allergies can affect the eyes, too. They can make your eyes red, itchy, burning, and watery, and cause swollen eyelids.
The same treatments and self-help strategies that ease nasal allergy symptoms work for eye allergies, too.
Also called ocular allergies or allergic conjunctivitis, they pose little threat to eyesight other than temporary blurriness. But infections and other conditions can cause the same symptoms, so call your doctor if your symptoms don’t improve.
Like all allergies, eye allergies happen when your body overreacts to something. The immune system makes antibodies that cause your eyes to release histamine and other substances. This causes itching and red, watery eyes. Some people also have nasal allergies.
There are two types of eye allergies: seasonal, which are more common, and perennial.
Seasonal allergies happen at certain times of the year — usually early spring through summer and into autumn. Triggers are allergens in the air, commonly pollen from grasses, trees, and weeds, as well as spores from molds.
Perennial allergies happen year-round. Major causes include dust mites, feathers (in bedding), and animal (pet) dander. Other substances, including perfumes, smoke, chlorine, air pollution, cosmetics, and certain medicines, can also play a role.
Sometimes, it’s easy to tell what causes an allergy — for example, if symptoms strike when you go outside on a windy, high-pollen-count day, or when a pet climbs onto your lap. If your trigger isn’t clear, a doctor can give you tests to find out.
Do-It-Yourself Allergy Relief
The first thing to do is to avoid your triggers.
Stay indoors when pollen counts are highest, usually in mid-morning and early evening. Close the windows and run the air conditioner (window fans can draw in pollen and mold spores).
When you go out, wear eyeglasses or big sunglasses to block pollen from your eyes. Driving? Keep the windows closed and run the air conditioner.
To limit your exposure to dust mites, use special pillow covers that keep allergens out. Wash bedding frequently in hot water. If your mattress is more than a few years old, consider getting a new one.
Clean floors with a damp mop. Sweeping tends to stir up rather than get rid of allergens. Especially if you have a pet, consider replacing rugs and carpets, which trap and hold allergens, with hardwood, tile, or other flooring materials that are easier to clean. Choose blinds instead of curtains.
To stop mold from growing inside your home, keep the humidity under 50%. You may need to use a dehumidifier, especially in a damp basement. Clean the dehumidifier regularly. And use a bleach solution when you tidy up your kitchen and bathrooms.
If your pet is a trigger, keep it out of your bedroom.
Don’t rub your eyes. That’s likely to make symptoms worse. Use cool compresses instead.
Allergy Medications for Eyes
Over-the-counter and prescription medications can give short-term relief of some eye allergy symptoms. Prescription treatments can provide both short- and long-term help.
Sterile saline rinses and eye lubricants can soothe irritated eyes and help flush out allergens.
Decongestant eyedrops can curb eye redness by constricting blood vessels in the eyes. These drops tend to sting a bit, and they don’t relieve all symptoms. What’s more, their effect tends to be short-lived. If you use them for more than a few days, it can cause ”rebound” eye redness.
Eyedrops containing ketotifen can ease allergy symptoms for up to 12 hours. They won’t cause rebound redness even with long-term use.
Refrigerating your eyedrops may bring more relief.
In addition to red, itchy eyes from allergies, many people also have other symptoms, like a stuffy, runny nose. If you do, nasal steroid sprays can help your eyes and nose. Over-the-counter options include Flonase, Rhinocort, and Nasacort. Several others are also available with a doctor’s prescription.
Oral antihistamines can also help. Cetirizine (Zyrtec) and loratadine (Claritin) tend to be less sedating than some older drugs, and they provide longer-lasting relief. Keep in mind, though, that oral antihistamines do dry the eyes and can make a dry eye condition worse.
If you need more help, a doctor can prescribe other eyedrops. For severe or persistent cases, immunotherapy (allergy shots or under-the-tongue tablets) can also help.