One of the best things about Michigan is the change in seasons. Each year, Michiganders eagerly await the first truly warm day of spring when the daffodils and tulips miraculously come to life. It’s easy to forget that for many people, the flowering landscape comes with red, itchy, watery eyes.
While seasonal allergies to pollen in grass, trees and ragweed can irritate the eyes, some of the most common allergens are dust, mold, smoke, pet dander, air pollution and perfumes.
Eye allergies are called allergic conjunctivitis. They are not contagious and do not damage vision, except to cause temporary blurriness from symptoms. Allergic conjunctivitis occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to a normally harmless substance, like pollen. The immune system overreacts and releases histamines, which are chemicals the body makes to fight off the allergen. This process causes the eyes to become red, itchy, swollen and watery. The part of the eye that is affected is called the conjunctiva, which is the clear mucous membrane that covers the white part of the eye and the inside of the eyelid.
There are several options for treatment. Preservative-free lubricating drops can provide temporary relief by washing away allergens, and they also relieve dry, irritated eyes by adding moisture. Preservative-free drops, such as Thera Tears®, Systane® and Refresh® come in individual vials and can be used as often as needed.
A good first line of defense is to try allergy drops that contain an antihistamine to help relieve the itching. Common over-the-counter (OTC) brands, Alaway® and Zatidor® are actually like Motrin and help reduce swelling. Drops like Naphcon-A® and Opcon-A® work better to reduce itching, redness and swelling. These should only be used occasionally or for less than two weeks at a time.
Allergic conjunctivitis occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to a normally harmless substance, like pollen.
If these OTC drops fail to relieve symptoms, allergy drops can be prescribed by an eye doctor. And while many people think allergy pills can help, they, unfortunately, have a limited effect on relieving symptoms in the eyes.
John A. Waters, MD, ophthalmologist at Complete Eye Care, sees many patients who suffer from eye allergies. He says that frequently, they first turn to drops that claim to “get the red out,” but he warns against long term use of these eye drops.
“Drops that claim to ‘get the red out’ of the eyes actually make the eyes redder with long-term use,” he explained. “What happens with allergies is the blood vessels on the surface of the eye dilate, or get larger. The drops that get the red out temporarily reduce the size of the blood vessels, so they are not as noticeable. Once the drops wear off, the blood vessels can actually dilate more than they did before the drops were used. This makes the eyes look even redder.”
Because there are many different diagnoses that look and feel like eye allergies, Dr. Waters recommends seeing an eye doctor to address symptoms. “It’s difficult for people to know for sure when they have the common allergic conjunctivitis due to allergies,” he said. “Similar symptoms can easily be a contagious form of bacterial or viral conjunctivitis, known as ‘pink eye’. When in doubt, it’s always best to see an eye doctor and receive proper instructions and treatment.”
If allergies tend to dampen the joys of spring, this year it might be time to give the eyes a little more attention. “There’s no need for people to suffer, since we have a variety of effective treatments available today,” Dr. Waters said. “If an OTC drop doesn’t work, it’s likely that a prescription drop will be more effective. It’s really a matter of finding out what works for each individual patient.”
Other Types of Conjunctivitis
Bacterial: This is a type of “pink eye” caused by bacteria. It is highly contagious and spread by contact. Usually, there is a thick mucus discharge. Treatment includes prescription antibiotic eye drops and ointment.
Viral: This is a type of “pink eye” caused by a virus like a common cold or flu. It is highly contagious and spread by sneezing, coughing and contact. Usually there is a watery discharge. OTC drops like Naphcon-A and Opcon-A along with cool compresses can be effective.
If you have eye allergies:
- Wash hands regularly.
- Never rub your eyes.
- Wear sunglasses or glasses outside.
- Avoid wearing contact lenses.
- Never share eye drops.
- Use cool compresses on the eyes.
- Use air conditioning or air filtering.
- Keep pets out of your bedroom.
- Wash bedding frequently with hot water.
- Avoid known allergens.