Spring time is prime time for allergies. And, although most of us know about symptoms such as runny nose and sneezing, allergies can have a major impact on your eyes, too. Optometrist Jane Le from Sydney’s rt healthy eyes explains how allergies affect your eyes, why they occur and what you can do to ease your eyes as we enter allergy season.
Jane explains that eye allergies are common and usually mild; they can occur on their own or in conjunction with allergic rhinitis (hay fever) or sinusitis (inflammation of the nasal mucus membrane). But, for people who have chronic eczema or asthma, eye allergies can be serious and can trigger inflammation of the conjunctiva (the delicate membrane that covers the eye and the inside of the eyelid).
If you’re affected, your eyes may feel itchy and sore but some people don’t get itching – instead, they feel a burning sensation and/or tired eyes.
What causes allergies?
Like all allergies, symptoms occur when your body overreacts to a substance i.e. an allergen. The immune system makes antibodies to fight what it sees as an invader (the allergen) and this causes your body to release histamine.
Your eyes are especially sensitive to allergens because like your skin, they are exposed and vulnerable to the outside world. When allergens come into contact with your eyes, they cause cells called mast cells to break down with the release of histamine. Histamine causes itching and dilation of the blood vessels and excessive watering of the eyes, too. You might get swelling of the eyelids or conjunctiva, sensitivity to light, blurry vision and/or a burning sensation. Plus, histamine causes blood vessels to widen and this allows for inflammatory allergic molecules to flow more easily into the eye’s bloodstream. The result? Redness of the eyes, swelling and more.
Seasonal and perennial
The most common types of eye allergies are seasonal and perennial (happen all year round).
Seasonal allergies are caused by exposure to pollens, tiny potentially irritating materials released from grass, trees, mould and weeds. Pollens are at their highest concentration in spring and summer, resulting in hay fever for susceptible people.
Perennial allergies that affect the eyes throughout the year are caused by a range of ever-present allergens, from mould, pet substances (dead skin cells, hair, feathers in bedding) and dust mites. Pollution, tobacco smoke, chlorine and certain medicines can also trigger an allergic reaction in susceptible people. The symptoms of eye allergies can also be triggered by direct contact with cosmetics, perfumes, preservatives, contact lenses and insect stings.
Sometimes, it’s easy to detect what’s causing your allergic eye problems. But it’s not always simple. So, your GP may suggest a few tests to pinpoint exactly what’s setting you off.
Six self-help ways to protect your eyes from allergies and reduce symptoms
1. Reduce exposure to the allergen or allergens that are triggering your symptoms. If it’s pollen, wear sunglasses to block pollen particles from getting to your eyes when you’re out and about.
2. Try to keep the windows closed and use the air conditioning when you’re in the car.
3. Wash after being outside to remove pollen from your body and hair.
4. Think about replacing carpets with hard flooring and cleaning them with a slightly damp cloth instead of sweeping (which tends to stir up allergens). And, if you can, choose blinds instead of curtains for the same reason.
5. Cold compresses and lubricating eye drops can help ease the symptoms, especially if your eyes are itchy. Or, try a sterile saline solution to help flush away allergens from your eyes.
6. Keeping your eye drops in the fridge may provide some cooling relief.
Medical treatment for mild allergies involves the use of anti-histamine eye drops. Oral anti-histamine medications can be helpful to reduce the symptoms of hay fever, too. And, steroid eye drops may need to be prescribed for more chronic (long-term) and serious allergies. See your optometrist or GP for the most effective treatment plan.
About the author
Jane Le is qualified in ocular therapeutics and has been an optometrist since 2006. She has worked extensively across Australia and as a volunteer optometrist in El Salvador and in Mexico. Currently, she works at rt healthy eyes in Surry Hills, Sydney.