What Are Eye Allergies?
According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, between 40 and 50 million Americans suffer from allergies. If you suffer from seasonal or other types of allergies, you may not realize that allergies can also affect your eyes.
Allergic reactions are caused by your immune system’s response to a normally harmless substance such as pollen, dust mites, mold, pet dander and food, among others. These substances are called allergens. People who are sensitive to such substances have a physical reaction in response to the allergen.
Eye allergies are called allergic conjunctivitis. The conjunctiva, the translucent membrane that covers your eyes, becomes inflamed when an allergen comes into contact with them. This most often occurs through airborne transmission, and you may notice that your eyes are itchy, red and irritated. This allergic reaction can be caused by both outdoor and indoor allergens. This is the same type of reaction that affects your nasal passages which are lined with a skin similar to the conjunctiva.
If you are sensitive to outdoor allergens, your symptoms are likely to be seasonal - usually in the spring or fall when grasses and plants are releasing pollen into the air. This is called seasonal allergic conjunctivitis (SAC). However, if you are allergic to indoor allergens such as dust mites, pet dander, and mold, you may suffer from symptoms throughout the year. This is known as perennial allergic conjunctivitis (PAC). You may also be someone who is allergic to both indoor and outdoor allergens. Your PAC symptoms may, in fact, become worse during the spring and fall pollen seasons.
Eye allergies can also be caused by using certain cosmetics, as well as antibiotic and other types eyedrops. Therefore, you should be aware of reactions to new cosmetics or the use of new eyedrops. If you are using artificial tears, you should be aware that preservatives may cause allergic reactions.
In some cases, the use of contact lenses can cause or exacerbate eye allergies. This is because airborne allergens can build up on your lenses. If you have either SAC or PAC, you may benefit from switching to disposable contact lenses. However, if you continue to use extended wear lenses, you should utilize extra care to ensure that they are thoroughly cleaned.
What Are the Symptoms of Eye Allergies?
While eye allergies are not normally vision-threatening, the symptoms can range from slight to severe. If you are one of the millions of people who suffer from allergic conjunctivitis, there may be times you can’t stand the irritation, particularly the itching - the most common symptom. The itching may be accompanied by redness, watery eyes, swelling of the eye lids and mucous formation. Although eye allergies can sometimes occur on their own, more commonly allergic conjunctivitis will occur in people who suffer from other types of allergies, including those that affect the respiratory system.
How Are Eye Allergies Detected?
When you see your eye doctor, you may already suspect that you are suffering from eye allergies. Your doctor will examine your eyes using a slit-lamp. Along with taking your medical history, if he is able to observe swelling in the conjunctiva and eyelids, this will confirm a diagnosis of allergic conjunctivitis.
How Are Eye Allergies Treated?
The first step in treating eye allergies is avoidance. If you see an allergist for your other allergies, this is the first thing your doctor will tell you, but the reality is that this isn’t always possible or practical.
To keep your eyelids and lashes free from allergens, it may be helpful for you to wash your eyelids with a few drops of diluted baby shampoo twice a day. In addition, the frequent use of artificial tears will help rinse allergens from your eyes and minimize your symptoms. You may also have tried over-the-counter eye drops to help your symptoms. While this may help with mild allergic reactions, if your allergies are severe. particularly if you suffer from PAC, this may not be sufficient to provide relief.
Your eye doctor may then prescribe various types of eyedrops including antihistamine, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory or mast stabilizer to relieve your symptoms. In fact, mast stabilizers may even help prevent the inflammation of allergic conjunctivitis. Because of the variety of options available, you may need to try several types of drops before finding the one that works best for you. Short term use of a topical corticosteroid may also be prescribed. However, long term use is not recommended due to the possibility of increasing your eye pressure, which can put you at increased risk of glaucoma and damage to your optic nerve.
There is a link between eye allergies and dry eye syndrome. If your symptoms are severe and don’t respond well to prescription eye drops, your doctor may prescribe Restasis® eyedrops. These drops are the first treatment approved by the FDA for the treatment of dry eye and have been demonstrated to increase the production of tears in patients. Restasis also helps to reduce inflammation and may help break the allergic cycle by helping flush allergens through increased tear production. The drops are used twice a day, and improvement in tear production and function may be seen in a few weeks.
While completely preventing eye allergies may not be possible, you can take precautions to minimize your symptoms. If seasonal allergies are a problem, then minimize the time you spend outdoors when pollen is high. If indoor allergens such as dust mites or pet dander are a problem, using barriers that protect against dust mites or keeping your pets out of the bedroom may also help. Using an air conditioner may help alleviate your symptoms by removing airborne allergens from the air. Just remember to frequently clean the filters.
The key to living with eye allergies is to find the right combination of lifestyle adjustments and medical treatments that work best for you.
Primary Eye Care Specialists at Kadrmas Eye Care New England
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