Allergies, Allergic Conjunctivitis and Itching

Baltimore Washington Eye Center, Maryland

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Eye Allergies and Itching

Up to 50 million Americans suffer from allergies, with allergic reactions involving the eyes being a common complaint. An allergic reaction that affects the conjunctiva, which is the clear layer of skin overlying the eyes, is commonly referred to as allergic conjunctivitis.

Allergic, or “hay fever”, conjunctivitis is most commonly seen in areas with high seasonal allergies. The most common types are seasonal allergic conjunctivitis (SAC) and perennial allergic conjunctivitis (PAC). SAC and PAC are triggered when a person is exposed to an allergen, most often one that is airborne. In other words, if you are allergic to a particular substance and then come into contact with it, you experience an allergic reaction, i.e. itching, sneezing.

Symptoms develop rapidly after exposure to the allergen and include itching, tearing, burning, red eyes, mucus discharge, and eyelid swelling. The conjunctiva is the same type of skin that lines the inside of the nose. Therefore, the same allergens can cause the same allergic reaction in both the eyes and the nose.  The most common allergens are: pollen (grass, trees, weeds), dust, molds, and pet dander.

The symptoms of SAC and PAC are similar. The major difference is when the symptoms occur:
  • SAC symptoms occur in the spring and summer (grass/trees), or fall (weeds). The attacks are usually short-lived and absent during other times of the year.
  • PAC symptoms can occur year-round and are typically caused by dust and/or pet dander.      Allergens like pollens may also worsen your symptoms during certain times of the year.
The most effective “treatment” of allergies is avoidance of the allergen(s). If you can identify and avoid the particular agent(s) that you are allergic to, your symptoms will improve significantly. You can further improve your condition if you do some or all of the following: reduce the allergen load by minimizing clutter where allergens can collect; limit pillows, bedding, draperies, and dust ruffles;  minimize carpeting that can harbor dust mites; clean regularly and thoroughly to remove dust and mold. Additionally, the use of barriers and filters like pillow covers and furnace/air conditioner allergen filters can reduce symptoms. Lastly, you should keep windows and doors closed during your allergy season(s) and avoid pet dander as well.

Of course avoidance of the allergen(s) is not always easy or possible. If symptoms do develop, you can try any of the following therapies either alone or in combination. Apply cold compresses, use artificial tears/lubricating eye drops to flush out allergens that get into your eyes, and use over-the-counter medications, such as allergy eye drops and oral antihistamines, as directed for mild allergies. Beyond these self-help measures, many prescription eye drops are also available to help reduce allergies. Also, to help identify those substances that you are most allergic to, skin testing by an allergist may be helpful.

For mild cases of PAC and SAC, annual follow-up visits with an ophthalmologist may be appropriate. For more severe cases or for intermittent worsening of normally mild disease, more frequent visits with an ophthalmologist may be needed.

Guest Blogger:  Brad V. Spagnolo, M.D. with the Baltimore Washington Eye Center