Many symptoms of common eye conditions are sometime just allergies. Itchy eyes, redness and pain are sometimes signs of common eye allergies, such as hay fever or animal fur allergy. If you find your eyes periodically display these symptoms, it could just be all the pollen in the air.
Many people find their hay fever symptoms dwindle over time, although no one knows why. Some people find that the opposite is true. Allergies can and do get worse over a lifetime, so it’s important to be aware of it in children as soon as possible.
There are reports of people who are middle aged and older suddenly developing hay fever having never been sensitive to pollen before.
It’s also true that if you’re unfortunate enough to have one allergy, you are more likely to develop others. This is in part down to basic biology: some people simply have an immune system that is more allergy-prone.
Common Types of Eye Allergies
Allergies affect 20% of the population. Of these, at least 40% suffer from more than one kind of allergy. The most common form of eye allergy is hay fever. Hay fever is a seasonal allergy that aligns with the release of pollen. In the UK, this starts in May and continues across flowers, trees and grasses until September.
Other common allergies include foods, such as peanuts, milk or eggs, mould, and some forms of medicine.
When you come into contact with an allergen you are allergic to, a reaction occurs. Your body triggers an antibody response to tackle the threat. When the allergen comes into contact with the antibodies, these cells respond by releasing certain substances, one of which is called histamine. These substances cause swelling, inflammation and itching of the surrounding tissues, which is extremely irritating and uncomfortable.
When the allergen comes into contact with your eyes, it causes the redness and irritation. This in turn triggers your tear ducts to respond to flush out the pollen. This is why your eyes stream when you come into contact with pollen.
Other common symptoms associated with allergic reactions include:
- wheezing / coughing / shortness of breath
- sinus pain / runny nose
- nettle rash / hives
- itchy eyes, ears, lips throat and mouth
- sickness, vomiting & diarrhoea
The most common causes of allergic reactions are:
- pollen from trees, flowers and grasses
- proteins secreted from house dust mites (not just dust, like people think)
- foods such as peanuts, tree nuts, milk and eggs
- pets including: cats, dogs, horses, rabbits and guinea pigs
- insect venom from wasps and bees
- medicines such as anaesthetics
Hay Fever Triggers
Grass pollen is the most common allergen, which affects sufferers at the specific times of the year when grass pollen is released (May – July). However some people become allergic to tree or weed and shrub pollens, and will therefore be affected at different times of the year (February to June for trees; September and October for weeds).
Some people find that they are getting symptoms at different times of the year because they are becoming sensitive to tree pollen, particularly to birch pollen. You can be different to a variety of difference kinds of pollen, which is why you don’t always suffer when you go out in summer.
Eye Allergy Treatments
As with many conditions, prevention is the first line of defence. Avoid your exposure to allergens. For hay fever and other common eye allergies, it can be difficult to avoid the pollen. Tiny pollen spores are windborne and can travel for miles on air currents. So even if you’re nowhere near a plant, pollen can find you!
Other measures, such as using an allergen barrier balm applied around the nostrils, can help to prevent allergens entering the nose and triggering symptoms. This can prevent eye symptoms because of how your sinuses work.
- Your ears, nose, throat and tear ducts are all connected. When you encounter an allergen, all your sinuses react, even the ones that aren’t directly affected. The nose is the fastest way for allergens to enter your system, so guard it well.
- Nasal rinses with a normal saline solution are available to wash away allergens even for babies. These can be used as frequently as required and in conjunction with prescribed or over the-counter medications.
- Keep windows closed when indoors. This is most important in the early mornings, when pollen is being released, and in the evening when the air cools and pollens that have been carried up into the air begin to fall to ground level again.
- If you suffer symptoms indoors, a good air filter should help. Choose one that is proven to trap even small particles.
- When outside, avoid mowing lawns or raking leaves yourself. If you must perform these tasks, use a filtration face mask. Wear wraparound sunglasses when outdoors to keep pollen allergens out of your eyes. A hat with a peak or large brim can help keep pollens from your eyes and face.
- On high pollen days, shower and wash your hair after arriving home and change your clothing.
Curing Eye Allergies
The main medicine used to treat allergies is antihistamines. They can be used as soon as you notice symptoms, or as a preventative measure to be taken in the morning. Antihistamines work by stopping histamine affecting the cells in your body.
What is Histamine?
Histamine is a chemical released when the body detects something harmful, such as an infection. It causes blood vessels to expand and the skin to swell, which helps protect the body.
People who suffer allergies have bodies that mistake something harmless, such as pollen, for a threat. It then produces histamine, which causes symptoms such as rashes, a runny nose and/or sneezing.
Antihistamines help stop this happening if you take them before you come into contact with the substance you’re allergic to. Or they can reduce the severity of symptoms if taken afterwards.
Antihistamines can be taken as tablets, capsules, creams, liquids, eye drops or nasal sprays, depending on which part of your body is affected by your allergy.
Non-drowsy antihistamines are generally the best option, as they’re less likely to make you feel sleepy. But types that make you feel sleepy may be better if your symptoms affect your sleep.
Children’s Eye Allergies
Eye allergies, such as hay fever, affect as many of 40% of children in the UK. There is also evidence to show that children in urban areas with more pollution have a higher incidence of allergies than those in rural regions.
Children suffering from hay fever often have sleep problems, which leads to daytime fatigue and somnolence, and decreased cognitive functioning.
Vernal conjunctivitis is a common reaction that usually affects boys who already suffer from asthma or eczema (up to 75% have either condition).
Most of these boys have a family history of allergies, and usually experience flare-ups in the spring and summer months, which can lead to a long-term swelling of the tissues that line the eyes.
Treating Eye Allergies in Children
Luckily, anti-histamine tablets are safe for most children. They have a good record of reducing symptoms to a manageable level, although in certain situations anti-allergy injections may be required instead.
If the suspected allergy trigger is something that has been handled by your child, be sure to wash their hands, face, and clothes thoroughly to remove the remaining particles.
Wearing glasses or sunglasses will protect the eyes against any dust, mould, or pollen spores, reducing the likelihood of another allergic episode.
If rinsing the eyes with cold water does not help to resolve the problem, allergy eye drops may be needed. These wash contaminants out of the eyes, minimising any inflammation.