What triggers eye allergies & what you can do to treat them

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While it’s a beautiful blossom-filled season for most, spring is also the time of year that allergy sufferers dread. “Seasonal allergic conjunctivitis or eye allergy usually peaks during pollen season but can last for several months of the year,” says Inge Loubser, an optometrist at Mellins i-Style. Red, itchy, burning and scratchy eyes can cause severe discomfort along with the other symptoms associated with allergies.

What is an eye allergy?

It is the inflammation of the conjunctiva – the thin membrane that covers the front of the eye and the inside of the eyelids. One or both eyes may be affected.

What triggers eye allergies?

Pollen, the fine powder released from plants and trees, is one of the leading allergy triggers in spring. Just like any other allergic reaction, eye allergies are caused by the immune system mistaking a seemingly harmless allergen for a dangerous substance. This causes the immune system to release histamine, a chemical that fights the allergen causing swelling and inflammation. The blood vessels in your eyes also swell and your eyes get red, teary and itchy.

You can be allergic to:

  • Pollen from grasses, plants, weeds, and trees. These are the most common types of eye allergies and are referred to as seasonal allergic conjunctivitis.
  • Dust, pet hair, feathers, smoke, mould and other indoor allergens. These eye allergies last year-round and are referred to as chronic (perennial) conjunctivitis.
  • Make-up, perfume or other chemicals can trigger eye allergies and are called contact conjunctivitis.
  • An allergy to contact lenses, called giant papillary conjunctivitis, can cause bumps on the inside of your eyelid, making your eyes sensitive and red both with and without wearing your contact lenses.

What are the symptoms of eye allergies? 

Apart from the allergy symptoms such as a stuffy, runny nose and sneezing (similar to that of a cold), other symptoms of eye allergies include red, irritated eyes, itchy eyes, watery eyes, swollen eyelids, burning, scratching and even light sensitivity.

Treatment for eye allergies

Over-the-counter medications can usually help relieve eye allergy symptoms. People with severe allergies, however, may require additional treatment.

  • Ask your optometrist to recommend the correct eye drops. Although there are many different types of prescription and over-the-counter eye drops available that treat eye allergies, the most frequently prescribed eye drops for eye allergies are “mast cell stabilisers”. They contain olopatadine hydrochloride, an antihistamine that reduces the natural chemical histamine in the body. It therefore effectively relieves symptoms associated with an allergic reaction.
  • Other eye drops contain non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medications.
  • Further over-the-counter options include lubricating eye drops, such as “artificial tears”, which can help rinse allergens from the eyes.
  • Never buy off-the-shelf eye drops that contain a vascular constrictor (vasoconstrictor) that narrows the blood vessels to “reduce redness”. Regular use of these drops can lead to “rebound redness”. When the cause of redness is not treated correctly, these types of eye drops make the blood vessels expand as soon as the effect of the eye drops has stopped working.
  • Do not insert eye drops while wearing contact lenses. First, remove the contact lenses and only insert them again after an hour, by which time the drops will have been absorbed.
  • Try to avoid rubbing your eyes, as this may aggravate the symptoms.
  • A cool, damp washcloth may also provide soothing relief. This can help alleviate dryness as well as irritation. It will, however, not treat the underlying cause of the allergic reaction.
  • Remember to wear glasses or sunglasses outdoors to protect your eyes from pollen, especially during windy conditions.

7 easy tips to minimise eye allergies and exposure to pollen

  1. Clean your spectacles often. Try to use lens wipes or lens spray with no artificial cleaning ingredients.
  2. If you find pollen affecting you in your home, hang up wet towels indoors to help capture pollen floating in the air.
  3. Vacuum and clean your carpets regularly. Consider replacing old carpets and rugs with contemporary wooden or laminate floors and tiles.
  4. Vacuum your mattress and wash pillow protectors regularly.
  5. Wash your face and rinse your eyes more often
  6. Wash your hair regularly to get rid of excess pollen.
  7. Get changed in the bathroom. The humidity from the shower, basins etc. will prevent pollen from floating in the air.

What is the difference between eye allergies and pink eye?

Although pink eye and eye allergies have similar symptoms, they are two different conditions. Conjunctivitis (or pink eye) refers to the inflammation of the conjunctiva. When the conjunctiva becomes irritated or inflamed, conjunctivitis can occur.

“While eye allergies are caused by an adverse immune reaction to certain substances such as dust or pollen, pink eye is caused by bacterial infections, viruses, contact lenses and chemicals.”

While eye allergies are caused by an adverse immune reaction to certain substances such as dust or pollen, pink eye is caused by bacterial infections, viruses, contact lenses and chemicals. The condition is highly contagious and the eye appears red or pink, is itchy and irritated. A thick discharge usually builds up on one or both eyes at night.

Children and eye allergies, including pink eye

  • Eye drops are safe to use in children of three years and older – consult your optometrist or pharmacist.
  • If there is a discharge, use a damp cotton wipe or clean face cloth to wipe the eye clean. Use a clean piece for each eye.
  • Always wipe from the inside corner of the eye to the outside.
  • Place cold cloths on your child’s eyes a few times a day if the eyes are itching or burning.
  • If your child has pink eye and wears contact lenses, remove the lenses and consult your optometrist.

The correct way to use and insert eye drops in your child’s eyes

  • Always use eye drops as directed and keep the bottle tip clean.
  • Tilt your child’s head back and pull the lower eyelid down with one finger.
  • Drop or squirt the medicine inside the lower lid.
  • The eye must be kept closed for a few seconds for the drops to spread.
  • Keep the tip of the bottle away from eyelashes.

For more eye care tips and advice, visit www.mellins.co.za