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Allergies & Your Eyes

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Itchy, red, swollen and watery eyes are an unfortunate reality for many once spring comes around. Often accompanied by excessive sneezing and a running nose, these symptoms warrant an immediate trip to the pharmacy, if not the doctor or allergist. That being said, why is it that spring causes such unpleasant eye-related symptoms? And what is the best way to deal with them?

Eye allergies primarily involve the conjunctiva, or the lining that covers the white part of the eye (sclera) and the inside of the eyelids. In general, the conjunctiva contributes by lubricating the eye, producing mucus and tears, as well as working to prevent microbes from entering the eye. When your eyes are open, the conjunctiva is directly exposed to the external environment.

Allergic conjunctivitis refers to the inflammation of the conjunctiva in response to an allergen. Symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis include redness, oedema – or fluid accumulation, itching, and increased tear production. These symptoms occur as a result of the release of histamines and other substances released by mast cells, thus antihistamines are typically the most effective way to deal with allergies. Pollen is the most common cause of allergic conjunctivitis, though other allergens include moulds, dust mites, smoke, animal hair, perfume and cosmetics.

As is mentioned earlier, antihistamines are often used for the treatment of allergic conjunctivitis. Antihistamines can either be topical, such as eye drops, or systemic, such as allergy pills. Mast cell stabilizers, which can be prescribed by your doctor and often take the form of eye drops, can also be used. These medications typically take longer to take effect than antihistamines, but last for a longer period of time. Before taking any medications, it is important to consult with your doctor, who will be able to advise you what course of treatment will be most effective for your symptoms. Artificial tear drops which are non-preserved may also be advantageous.

If you suffer from allergic conjunctivitis, it is important to be vigilant about maintaining proper eye hygiene, particularly if you wear contact lenses. Touching your eyes will increase the amount of dirt and allergens that they are exposed to, causing more irritation to your eyes, and possibly even infection, so resist the temptation to rub excessively. Rubbing also physically impacts the aforementioned mast cells, thereby worsening the allergic reaction and your symptoms.

In addition, if pollen is causing your symptoms, then pay attention to weather reports, which often indicate if there is an increased presence of allergens. If this is the case, it may be best to spend the day in doors and avoid exposure to the allergens altogether.

Eye allergies are typically more irritating than dangerous, but that is not to say that they cannot be extremely frustrating, particularly for contact lens wearers. If you’re suffering from eye allergies, it is beneficial to take the time to speak with your doctor, who should be able to help you identify the allergens that are causing your symptoms and recommend a course of treatment.

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