Understanding Eye Allergies
Eye allergies are like any other allergic response in that they are related to the function of your body’s immune system. With eye allergies the allergic response is triggered when a specific substance comes into contact with antibodies attached to the mast cells in your eyes. When this occurs the mast cells release histamines, and it is these histamines that cause the eye allergy symptoms most commonly experienced – red and bloodshot appearance, itchiness, and constant watering. The severity of these eye allergy symptoms will depend on the nature of the irritant, the volume of it to which the individual is exposed, and the individual nature of their immune system.
Many people don’t make the same connection between allergies and eyes the way they do with other parts of the body. There are different types of eye allergies, as well as many different allergens that can promote allergic responses in people’s eyes. We’ll look at those here, as well as what’s the consensus on the best eye allergy treatments and management approaches. We’ll also share a few eye allergy symptoms that are not as common as the three listed above, but are still seen in some people.
Allergy Types and Related Eye Allergy Symptoms
Seasonal and Perennial Allergic Conjunctivitis
This is definitely the most common type of eye allergy, as it is prompted by exposure to plant pollens in the air with ‘hay fever’, or seasonal allergies. The symptoms for seasonal and perennial allergic conjunctivitis are itching eyes, redness of the eyeballs, burning sensations in the eyeballs, and a clear, watery discharge that continues without stopping.
Individuals with this type of eye allergy may also have chronic dark circles under their eyes. These are known as allergic shiners. Their eyelids may also be puffy, and they may have an aversion to bright lights.
Perennial allergic conjunctivitis involves the same symptoms, but sufferers experience them year-round and not just during the spring bloom. The symptoms are usually milder, and perennial allergic conjunctivitis is caused by reactions to pet dander, mold, dust mites and other household allergens rather than by the exclusive source of seasonal allergic conjunctivitis – plant pollen.
This is one of the more serious eye allergies, and it primarily occurs in boys and young men. It is also commonly seen in people who have eczema or asthma. The eye allergy symptoms seen with vernal keratoconjunctivitis are itching, excessive tear production in the eyes, photophobia (aversion to light exposure), and the feeling of having something in the eye. It is important to understand as well that untreated vernal keratoconjunctivitis can lead to permanent vision impairment.
Some eye allergies are seen more frequently in older patients, and atopic keratoconjunctivitis is one of them. The eye allergy symptoms associated with it – severe itching, burning, redness, and mucus production to the extent that eyelids stick together during sleep – can occur year round. Left untreated atopic keratoconjunctivitis can cause significant damage to the cornea of the eye.
Contact Allergic Conjunctivitis
This eye allergy is almost exclusively experienced by contact lens wearers. It results from the lens irritating the eyeball and eye allergy symptoms here include redness, itching, mucous discharge, and discomfort with wearing the lenses.
Giant Papillary Conjunctivitis
This is another one of the eye allergies associated with wearing contact lenses, and it’s actually a more severe form of contact allergic conjunctivitis. However, with giant papillary conjunctivitis the eyeballs have individual fluid sacs called papules form in the upper lining of the inner eyelid. Eye allergy symptoms here include excessive tearing, itching, puffiness, mucous discharge, blurred vision, foreign-body-in-eye sensation, and difficulty wearing contact lenses.
Eye Allergy Treatment
Allergy eye drops are effective for relief for most of the different types of eye allergies. The different kinds are OTC eyedrops like Tears Naturale II, prescription eyedrops like Alrex (loteprednol etabonate), antihistamine eye drops, mast cell stabilizer eye drops, and NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) allergy eye drops. For any type of seasonal eye allergies a product like Acular (ketorolac) is nearly always a good choice for relief of symptoms.
Oral antihistamines can also be effective in blocking the histamine response in the mast cells of the eyes. They can, however, cause dry eyes for some people. Corticosteroid allergy eye drops are often prescribed those with severe eye allergies, but should only be taken under the direction of an ophthalmologist.
Allergy shots as part of an immunotherapy regimen can be used to mediate eye allergy symptoms as well. They involves tiny amounts of the allergen being injected over time with gradually increasing doses to build up the body’s natural defenses. This approach is not often used for eye allergies, however.
Eye Allergy Maintenance
The first and most logical piece of advice here will be to do your best to avoid the allergens that promote your eye allergies. For seasonal allergic conjunctivitis this can mean staying indoors at times of the day when pollen counts are at their highest. Other tips are to avoid the use of window fans which may draw more of the pollen indoors, and to not rub your eyes if they’re itchy as that will make the itching worse.
For perennial allergic conjunctivitis due to pet dander the same avoidance principle will apply, but other good tips are to wash your hands immediately after being in contact with an animal as well as making sure the pets are never in areas of the home where you spend a lot of time (like the bedroom).