An eye allergy, also known as allergic conjunctivitis, is an adverse immune response that occurs when the eye comes into contact with an irritating substance.
To ward off illnesses, the immune system normally defends the body against harmful invaders, such as bacteria and viruses.
In people with allergies, however, the immune system mistakes an allergen for a dangerous substance. This causes the immune system to create chemicals that fight against the allergen, even though it might be harmless otherwise.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications can usually help relieve eye allergy symptoms, but people with severe allergies may require additional treatment.
Symptoms of eye allergies may include:
- itchy or burning eyes
- watery eyes
- red or pink eyes
- scaling around the eyes
- swollen or puffy eyelids, especially in the morning
One eye or both eyes may be affected.
The eyeball is covered by a thin membrane called the conjunctiva. When the conjunctiva becomes irritated or inflamed, conjunctivitis can occur.
Conjunctivitis is more commonly known as pink eye. It causes the eyes to become watery, itchy, and red or pink.
Although pink eye and eye allergies cause similar symptoms, they’re two distinct conditions.
Eye allergies are caused by an adverse immune reaction. Pink eye, however, is the result of eye allergies as well as other causes.
- bacterial infections
- contact lenses
Pink eye that’s triggered by a bacterial infection or virus usually causes a thick discharge to build up on the eye at night. The condition is also highly contagious. Eye allergies, however, aren’t.
Eye allergies are caused by an adverse immune reaction to certain allergens. Most reactions are triggered by allergens in the air, such as:
Normally, the immune system promotes chemical changes in the body that help fight off harmful invaders, such as bacteria and viruses.
However, in people with allergies, the immune system mistakenly identifies an allergen, which may be otherwise harmless, as a dangerous intruder and begins to fight against it.
Histamine is released when the eyes come into contact with an allergen. This substance causes many uncomfortable symptoms, such as itchy and watery eyes. It can also cause a runny nose, sneezing, and coughing.
An eye allergy may happen at any time of year. However, it’s especially common during the spring, summer, and fall months when trees, grasses, and plants are in bloom.
Such reactions can also occur when a sensitive person comes into contact with an allergen and rubs their eyes. Food allergies may also cause eye allergy symptoms.
Eye allergies are best diagnosed by an allergist, someone who specializes in diagnosing and treating allergies. Seeing an allergist is particularly important if you have other allergy-related symptoms, such as asthma or eczema.
The allergist will first ask you about your medical history and symptoms, including when they started and how long they’ve persisted.
Then they’ll perform a skin prick test to determine the underlying cause of your symptoms. A skin prick test involves pricking the skin and inserting small amounts of suspected allergens to see if there’s an adverse reaction.
A red, swollen bump will indicate an allergic reaction. This helps the allergist identify which allergens you’re most sensitive to, allowing them to determine the best course of treatment.
The best way to treat an eye allergy is to avoid the allergen that’s causing it. However, this isn’t always possible, especially if you have seasonal allergies.
Luckily, numerous different treatments can relieve eye allergy symptoms.
Certain oral and nasal medications can help alleviate eye allergies, especially when other allergy symptoms are present. These medications include:
- antihistamines, such as loratadine (Claritin) or diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) or oxymetazoline (Afrin)
- steroids, such as prednisone (Deltasone)
Allergy shots may be recommended if symptoms don’t improve with medication. Allergy shots are a form of immunotherapy that involves a series of injections of the allergen.
The amount of allergen in the shot steadily increases over time. The allergy shots modify your body’s response to the allergen, which helps reduce the severity of your allergic reactions.
Many different types of prescription and OTC eye drops are available to treat eye allergies.
Eye drops frequently used for eye allergies contain olopatadine hydrochloride, an ingredient that can effectively relieve symptoms associated with an allergic reaction. Such eye drops are available under the brand names Pataday and Pazeo.
OTC options also include lubricant eye drops, such as artificial tears. They can help wash allergens from the eyes.
Other eye drops contain antihistamines or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAID eye drops include ketorolac (Acular, Acuvail), which is available by prescription.
Some eye drops must be used every day, while others can be used as needed to relieve symptoms.
Eye drops may cause burning or stinging at first. Any unpleasantness usually resolves within a few minutes. Some eye drops may cause side effects, such as irritation.
It’s important to ask your doctor which OTC eye drops work best before selecting a brand on your own.
Several natural remedies have been used to treat eye allergies with varying degrees of success, including these herbal remedies:
- allium cepa, which is made from red onion
Make sure to contact your doctor about the safety and effectiveness of these remedies before you try them.
A cool, moist washcloth may also provide relief for people with eye allergies.
You can try placing the washcloth over closed eyes several times a day. This can help alleviate dryness as well as irritation. However, it’s important to note that this method doesn’t directly treat the underlying cause of the allergic reaction.
If you have allergies and are prone to eye reactions, then you’ll likely experience eye allergy symptoms whenever you come into contact with suspected allergens.
Although there’s no cure for allergies, treatment can help relieve eye allergy symptoms. Medications and eye drops are effective in most cases. Allergy shots might also be used to help your body build up immunity to certain allergens for long-term relief.
Call your allergist right away if symptoms don’t improve with treatment or if you start experiencing large amounts of discharge in your eyes. This may indicate another eye condition.