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Eye allergies: Triggers and Treatments
Medically reviewed by Christine Cancar on 3 March 2022
Eye allergies can cause a range of uncomfortable symptoms including itching, redness and watery eyes. They can be triggered by a range of irritants/allergens; however, while they are irritating, most eye allergies are not dangerous and can be avoided or treated to relieve discomfort.
What are eye allergies?
Eye allergies can also be referred to as allergic conjunctivitis or ocular allergies. They are usually sparked by the same irritants that cause sneezing, itchiness, runny noses and other symptoms among allergy sufferers.
The most common airborne allergens are mould, pollen, dust, and pet dander. When these irritate the conjunctivitis and eyelids then an eye allergy occurs. Eye allergies do not spread from person to person unlike different types of conjunctivitis. Eyes can still get irritated even though they do not come in direct contact with other allergens such as food and insect stings.
Eye allergies can also be caused by certain beauty products, makeup, and eye drops. Eye brighteners for cosmetic purposes and artificial tears to help with dry eyes can cause irritations. It's important to test products with small drops before using them in full. You should also read product labels and consult with your eye care professional in case of any doubt or concerns. Using preservative-free eye drops is also recommended.
Benjamin Franklin once said, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". He also invented bifocals, so we'll take his word for it, as there are many things you can do to prevent allergies from flaring up.
How do you know if you have eye allergies?
There are many signs which indicate that your eye is having an allergic reaction. However, you can only be sure whether these symptoms are certainly related to an eye allergy by consulting your doctor or eye care professional for a medical advice diagnosis.
Eye allergy symptoms
The symptoms of an eye allergy can include the following:
- Red eyes
- Blurry vision
- Swollen eyes
- Itchy eyes
- Light sensitivity
- Tearing/watery discharge
- A burning sensation in the eye
- A foreign body sensation (feeling like there is grit or dirt in your eyes)
Sometimes eye allergy symptoms are accompanied by nasal allergies (i.e. itchy, stuffy nose and sneezing), and eczema; other times, they occur alone.
Why are my eyes red?
Allergens such as pet dander and pollen can cause your eyes to look red. When exposed to these, the mast cells in your eyes release histamine which causes your eyes to go red. Histamines can also cause watery and itchy eyes.
Eye allergy triggers
There are a variety of eye allergy triggers, including:
- Outdoor allergens - pollen
- Indoor allergens - pet dander, mould, dust mites
- Irritants - such as perfume and cigarette smoke
How to deal with eye allergies -management and treatment
Though you may not be able to avoid an eye allergy altogether, there are several measures you can take to reduce its symptoms.
You can limit your outdoor exposure by:
- Checking the pollen count in the morning to gauge how at-risk you may be. Pollen counts are usually highest mid-morning or early evening. Many people suffer seasonal allergies during the spring when the pollen count is high. This is often classified as hay fever
- Staying indoors or away from areas with open fields of grass and flowers when the pollen count is high
- In general, wearing any eyewear (including glasses) will offer protection and can help keep pollen out of your eyes. Due to their style, wrap-around frames are better as they offer more protection from flying particles, pollen and other allergens. Oversized sunglasses are also a good choice as they cover more surface area
- Avoiding rubbing your eyes as this can irritate them and make your eyes feel worse
You can limit your indoor exposure by:
- Avoiding any products that could provoke your allergies
- Mopping away any dust mites. Cleaning floors with a damp mop rather than dry dusting will be much more effective in limiting your exposure
- Washing your bedding regularly with hot water to keep dust mites out
- Getting rid of any mould by minimising damp and keeping areas where mould may appear extra clean
- Investing in a HEPA filter for your air conditioner can help to trap any mould spores that may irritate your eyes
- You can also purchase air purifiers with an allergy trapping filter for your heating/cooling system
You can limit your exposure to eye allergies caused by pets by:
- Washing your hands thoroughly straight after you've touched any animals
- Washing your clothes after visiting friends with pets
- Keeping pets out the bedroom so that you are not exposed to pet dander while you sleep
- Replacing carpeted floors with lino, tile or wood as these are easier to keep free from pet dander
You can help to manage your eye allergies by:
- Carrying around an eyewash kit to give your eyes a rinse
- the surface of the lenses. We recommend sticking to daily contact lenses during allergy season as you can dispose of the lens after a single use and avoid the build-up of allergens and debris
- Finding eye drops that work for you, and that can help reduce the feeling of irritation. There are many over-the-counter solutions that you can purchase without a prescription
- Avoiding rubbing your eyes as this releases histamine and aggravates allergy symptoms
- Washing your face with cool water in the evening to relieve your eyes of any traces of pollen that may irritate you when you sleep
- Avoiding wearing heavy makeup and wearing a hypoallergenic concealer if you must
See your doctor or optometrist to discuss additional measures or medication you can take.
How do you get rid of eye allergies?
You may not be able to get rid of eye allergies for good; however, prescription eye drops, and medications can reduce the symptoms. Your ophthalmologist may prescribe the following as well as eye drops for allergies.
- Non-sedating oral antihistamines (please note, these may dry your eyes and can make your symptoms worse)
- Allergy shots - these are also referred to as immunotherapy. Small amounts of the allergen are injected over a period of time to strengthen an individual's immune system against the allergen
Eye Drops for allergies
There are various eye drops which can help to relieve symptoms of eye allergies and it would be best to see an eye care professional to determine which ones are the best for you. Some are available over the counter at the pharmacy/optician and other stronger medicines need a prescription.
Prescription eye drops
- Antihistamine eye drops - these eye drops provide quick relief but are only a short-term fix to reduce watery eyes, redness and swelling
- Mast cell stabiliser eye drops - these can prevent itching if used before your eyes are exposed to allergens
- Antihistamine and mast cell stabiliser eye drops - some eyedrops include both antihistamine and mast cell stabiliser to treat eye allergies
- Corticosteroid eye drops - these are used to treat chronic eye allergies. However, side effects of long-term use include cataracts and glaucoma as well as the risk of infection. Do not use them without medical supervision
- Oral antihistamines – these work in the same way as the eye drops but will also treat other allergy symptoms such as a runny nose and sneezing that is caused by the allergy
Over-the-counter eye drops
- Antihistamine eye drops
- Mast cell stabiliser eye drops
- Artificial tears – these help to relieve eye allergies temporarily by washing allergens from the eye. They also relieve dry, irritated eyes by adding moisture. Preservative free is the better option
- NSAID eye drops - these are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in the form of eye drops. They can be used to relieve itchy eyes and treat eye inflammation
- Decongestants (with or without antihistamines) – these reduce redness in the eyes from allergies. If the decongestant eye drops you choose include an antihistamine, they can relieve itchiness as well. You should not use these eye drops for more than two to three days. Longer-term use increases irritating symptoms
- Oral antihistamines
Try Systane Hydration
Systane Hydration Lubricant Eye Drops are also great for soothing uncomfortable symptoms and irritation caused by eye allergies and symptoms of dry eyes. These eye drops are useful for hayfever sufferers and can also be used with or without contact lenses. Featuring sodium hyaluronate, they provide hydration and lubrication to your eyes. Systane Hydration eye drops are not antihistamine nor mast cell stabiliser, just good eye drops for helping to relieve itchy, dry, and irritated eyes.
You should not wear contact lenses if your symptoms are severe or if you have been told that your cornea is affected. Do not put drops in your eyes while wearing contact lenses.
Can you get allergies in one eye?
Typically, both eyes are affected by eye allergies. However, if only one eye came into contact with the allergen, you may find you have an allergy in one eye only. For example, if only one eye is rubbed with the allergen.
Eye allergy diagnosis
Eye allergies share characteristics associated with certain eye diseases which is why it is essential to get an accurate diagnosis. An allergist or ophthalmologist can conduct tests which will reveal whether or not these shared symptoms are the result of an eye allergy.
An eye allergy diagnosis may involve examining the eye with a microscope to see swollen blood vessels on the surface of the eye. Your ophthalmologist might also take a culture scraping from the conjunctiva to test for a certain type of white blood cells that signify an eye allergy.
How long does an eye allergy last?
Seasonal allergies usually last between 4-8 weeks during the pollen season. Other allergies can be triggered at any time. An allergic reaction can last for as long as you're exposed to the allergen.
Quick links:A guide to red eyes
A guide to swollen eyelids
Top tips for contact lenses and allergies