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Eye Allergies

Along with congestion, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, headaches and difficulty breathing, individuals with allergies often suffer from eye allergies or allergic conjunctivitis resulting in red, watery, itchy and sometimes swollen eyes.  Just as irritants cause an allergic response in your nasal and respiratory system, your eyes also react with an oversensitive immune response, triggered by an environmental substance that most people’s immune systems ignore. Most individuals with allergies also suffer from eye allergies which affect millions of North Americans, particularly with seasonal allergic conjunctivitis (SAC) which is common during the spring, summer, and fall.

What Causes An Eye Allergy? woman wiping her eyes with a tissue

In a very general sense, eye allergies, or allergies that cause you to sneeze, wheeze, experience a shortness of breath or any of the other less-than-pleasant customary allergy symptoms that we associate with the springtime (of course, allergies can and do occur twelve months a year), occur when the immune system is confronted with an allergen.  Typical allergens include pollen, dust mites, mold, animal dander (similar to dandruff on animals' hair or fur), insect stings, latex substances and particular foods and medications. When exposed to an allergen for which you have a sensitivity, your body releases a number of immune system chemicals, such as histamine.  It is this natural release of histamine that causes allergy symptoms (which explains why we take anti-histamines to combat eye allergies).  While there is no generally accepted consensus on the exact causes of allergies, it is agreed that allergies in general, and eye allergies in specific are caused when you encounter an allergen-type stimulus in the environment.  Your natural histamine along with other chemicals is released that cause your eyes to experience the following symptoms: redness, inflamed or puffy eyes, experience tearing or other watery discharge, feel like there is sand inside your eyes, and feel itchy.  While most people expect a sneeze to be forthcoming when you tell them that you are experiencing an allergy attack, often the most visible signs will be your red, swollen, burning, itchy eyes.

The most popular eye allergens include outdoor natural airborne allergens like pollen from flowers, grass or trees, indoor allergens such as pet dander, dust or mold and irritants affecting those with a sensitivity like cosmetics, chemicals, cigarette smoke, or perfume.

Of course, different locations have different allergens at different times of the year.  Because of Alabama's location, it is one of the few US states that can boast a growing season every month of the year. Because of Alabama's more mild winter, allergen-heavy dandelion and other weeds remain in bloom even in January or February.

Tips for Coping With Eye Allergies in Fairhope, AL

The best way to avoid outdoor allergens is to be aware of the pollen season for the particular allergens that affect you the most.  We will list a few of the more popular allergens by season to help you, our patients sort through your more difficult months.  Springtime in Fairhope brings a big uptick in tree pollen; at the time of this writing, the most popular pollens in March for Fairhope, AL were oak, grass and cedar/juniper.  Allergy-causing grasses typically spike in allergen potency in the late spring through the summer.  Most of the weed allergens cause the most disturbance from the middle of the summer through the fall; the most popular weeds in our area include Ragweed, Plantain, Nettle, and Mugwort.  Obviously, it is impossible to entirely avoid the season's most popular allergens, but if you are able to minimize your exposure, it will inevitably reduce your allergy symptoms.

Allergies can go from mildly uncomfortable to debilitating.  Knowing how to alleviate symptoms and reduce exposure can greatly improve your comfort and quality of life, particularly during allergy season which can last from April until October.

To reduce exposure to allergens:

  1. Stay indoors and keep windows closed when pollen counts are high, especially in the mid-morning and early evening.
  2. Wear sunglasses outside to protect your eyes, not only from UV rays, but also from airborne allergens.
  3. Avoid rubbing your eyes, this can intensify symptoms and increase irritation. When the eyes get itchy, it is difficult not to rub and scratch them.  However, rubbing the eyes can aggravate the allergic cascade response, making them more swollen, red, and uncomfortable.
  4. Check and regularly clean your air conditioning filters.
  5. Keep pets outdoors if you have pet allergies and wash your hands after petting an animal.
  6. Use dust-mite-proof covers on bedding and pillows and wash linens frequently.
  7. Clean surfaces with a damp cloth rather than dusting or dry sweeping.
  8. Remove any mold in your home.
  9. Reducing contact lens wear during allergy season or switch to daily disposable contact lenses.

Treatment for the uncomfortable symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis include over-the-counter and prescription drops and medications.  It is best to know the source of the allergy reaction to avoid symptoms.  Often people wait until the allergy response is more severe to take allergy medication, but most allergy medications work best when taken just prior to being exposed to the allergen.  Consult your eye doctor about your symptoms and which treatment is best for you.

Non-prescription medications include:

  • Artificial tears (to reduce dryness)
  • Decongestant eyedrops
  • Oral antihistamines

Prescription medications include eyedrops such as antihistamines, mast-cell stabilizers, or stronger decongestants as well as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or corticosteroids.

Immunotherapy which are allergy injections given by an allergist are sometimes also helpful to assist your body in building up immunity to the allergens that elicit the allergic response.

If no allergy medicine is on hand, even cool compresses and artificial tears can help alleviate symptoms.

Finding the right treatment for your allergies can make all the difference in your quality of life, particularly during the time of year when most of us like to enjoy the outdoors.