It’s that time of year again – trees are budding, flowers are blooming, the weather is getting warmer… and unfortunately, your allergies have started.
Seasonal allergies affect millions of Canadians each year. Unfortunately, eye allergies are common reactions our bodies have to environmental allergens. Red, itchy, watery eyes are persistent symptoms for many people at this time of year. However, ocular allergies can also be experienced at other times of the year, even year-round.
There are many causes for eye allergies and many ways our bodies can react to them. While very inconvenient and sometimes painful, eye allergy treatments are available to try to alleviate your discomfort this season. You’ll be outside, running through fields of flowers in no time!
Most ocular allergies can be classified as allergic conjunctivitis. This refers to inflammation of the conjunctiva as caused by allergies. The conjunctiva is the mucous membrane that covers the white part (i.e. the sclera) of the eye. It can become inflamed by airborne allergens which can manifest with various symptoms. One of the most common causes of allergic conjunctivitis is hay fever.
Not only does allergic conjunctivitis cause itchy, red, or watery eyes, but it can also influence other aspects of life. It can alter your ability to read, drive, sleep and work. Needless to say, it’s a condition with effects which cannot be overestimated and it is important to find a treatment regimen that works for you to restore your quality of life.
There are other types of conjunctivitis that are less common, but even more severe. Atopic keratoconjunctivitis and vernal keratoconjunctivitis are both severe forms of eye allergy with potentially serious repercussions. They can lead to corneal ulcers and permanent vision loss. When suffering from eye allergies, it’s important to rule these out as eye conditions. The different types of ocular allergies and their severity are treated with varied treatment protocols.
What Causes Eye Allergies?
Recently, it seems the occurrences of seasonal allergies are increasing. Some researchers believe this is because of an increasingly clean society – our bodies don’t have to fight infections and bacteria as often, and have changed focus to allergens and developed a hypersensitivity to environmental ‘triggers’.
The eye and eye area are unprotected areas of the body and can be very sensitive to certain allergens in the air. When the eye comes into contact with airborne allergens and has a sensitivity, it can have adverse reactions. All the symptoms of eye allergies can be triggered by this contact with airborne allergens. Allergic reactions affecting the eyes are less common with other types of allergies (like food allergies), but can still be present in some cases.
If someone is hypersensitive to these allergens, mast cells in the eye release histamine. Histamine is an inflammatory mediator that causes dilation and permeation of blood vessels, leading to a domino effect for a variety of symptoms. The expanded blood vessels cause an increase in blood flow around the eye, which leads to redness and swelling. Nerve endings in the eye can be irritated, tear production and mucus secretion is increased, and in binding to nerve cell adaptors, histamine causes itching.
The most common airborne allergens that cause the release of histamine are:
- Dust mites
- Animal hair
Eye allergy sufferers can be of two camps: acute or chronic. Acute eye allergies are usually caused by intermittent exposure to an allergen, such as seasonal allergies at the height of pollen season. Chronic eye allergies occur with persistent exposure, such as a household pets or dust mites.
Ocular Allergy Symptoms
If you’ve suffered from eye allergies, you’re familiar with each uncomfortable and inconvenient symptom. The release of histamine in the eye area causes a variety of symptoms as it affects the eye’s blood vessels, nerve endings, and mucous membrane (the conjunctiva).
The most common ocular allergy symptoms are:
- Watery eyes
- Itchy eyes
- Light sensitivity (photophobia)
- Red, glossy eyes
- A feeling of ‘grittiness’
- Eyelid swelling
You may experience some or all of these symptoms with exposure to allergens. Often, they are present in conjunction with a runny nose (a.k.a. rhinitis) or scratchy throat. These symptoms typically appear shortly after exposure to an allergen and can be further aggravated by touching, rubbing, or itching the eye area.
Eye Allergy Treatments
There are a variety of eye allergy treatments to relieve symptoms of ocular allergies. Each person reacts to allergens and treatments differently, so it’s important to seek the advice of your eye care professional.
The first and best treatment is always prevention. To prevent allergens from having a strong effect on your eyes, it’s best to try to avoid allergens altogether. Wearing large or wrap-around sunglasses is a great way to physically reduce allergens from coming into contact with your eyes. If it’s possible, stay indoors on days when the allergen count is high. Take a shower before going to bed. Use high quality filters HEPA in your furnace and change them regularly. Frequent vacuuming is recommended for removing allergens from the home. Carpeting should be avoided.
If it’s not possible to remain indoors to avoid allergens, topical allergy medication can be a simple, yet effective solution to relieve symptoms. Lubricating moisture eye drops can also help dilute the allergens dissolved in the tear film and reduces dry eye. Dry eye compounds the symptoms of allergy sufferers. For contact lens wearers, daily disposable contact lenses are best. By replacing your contacts each day, allergen build-up is minimized.
If you suffer from eye allergy exclusively, over-the-counter oral antihistamines can actually dry out the ocular surface, thereby increasing the density of allergens dissolved within the tear film and actually exacerbate the condition.
Allergy season can wreak havoc on our eyes and your daily living. Dr. Jeff Sciberras can diagnose eye allergies and help you find the right solution to treat your eye allergy symptoms.