Understanding eye allergies

Although spring is here and new flower buds are everywhere, it’s also the time of year that allergy sufferers dread. ‘Seasonal allergic conjunctivitis or eye allergy usually peaks during pollen season but can last for several months of the year’, says Inge Loubser, an optometrist at Mellins i-Style (www.mellins.co.za). Red, itchy, burning and scratchy eyes can cause severe discomfort along with the other symptoms associated with allergies.  

What is an eye allergy?

It is the inflammation of the conjunctiva – the thin membrane that covers the front of the eye and the inside of the eyelids. One or both eyes may be affected.

What triggers eye allergies?

Pollen, the fine powder released from plants and trees – is one of the leading allergy- triggers in spring.  Just like any other allergic reaction, eye allergies are caused by the immune system mistaking a seemingly harmless allergen for a dangerous substance. This causes the immune system to release histamine, a chemical that fights the allergen. Histamine causes swelling and inflammation. The blood vessels in your eyes also swell and your eyes get red, teary and itchy. You can be allergic to::

  • Pollen from grasses, plants, weeds, and trees. These are the most common types of eye allergies and are referred to as seasonal allergic conjunctivitis.
  • Dust, pet hair, feathers, smoke, mold and other indoor allergens. These eye allergies last year-round and are referred to as chronic (perennial) conjunctivitis.
  • Makeup, perfume, or other chemicals can trigger eye allergies and are called contact conjunctivitis.
  • An allergy to contact lenses, called giant papillary conjunctivitis, can cause bumps on the inside of your eyelid, making your eyes sensitive and red both with and without wearing your contact lenses.


What are the symptoms?  

Apart from the allergy symptoms such as a stuffy, runny nose and sneezing (similar to that of a cold), other symptoms of eye allergies include red, irritated eyes, itchy eyes, watery eyes, swollen eyelids, burning, scratching and even light-sensitivity.

Treatment for eye allergies

Over-the-counter medications can usually help relieve eye allergy symptoms. People with severe allergies however may require additional treatment.

  • Ask your Mellins i.Style optometrist to recommend the correct eye drops. Although there are many different types of prescription and over-the-counter eye drops available that treat eye allergies, the most frequently prescribed eye drops for eye allergies are “mast cell stabilisers”. They contain olopatadine hydrochloride, an antihistamine that reduces the natural chemical histamine in the body. It therefore effectively relieves symptoms associated with an allergic reaction.
  • Other eye drops contain non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medications.
  • Further over-the-counter options include lubricating eye drops, such as “artificial tears,” which can help rinse allergens from the eyes.
  • Never buy off the shelf eye drops that contain a vascular constrictor (vasoconstrictor) that narrows the blood vessels to ‘reduce redness’. Regular use of these drops can lead to ‘rebound redness’. When the cause of redness is not treated correctly, these types of eye drops make the blood vessels expand as soon as the effect of the eye drops has stopped working.
  • Do not insert eye drops while wearing contact lenses. First remove the contact lenses and only insert them again after an hour by which time the drops will have been absorbed.
  • Try avoid rubbing your eyes as this may aggravate the symptoms.
  • A cool, moist washcloth may also provide soothing relief. This can help alleviate dryness as well as irritation. It will however not treat the underlying cause of the allergic reaction.
  • Remember to wear glasses or sunglasses outdoors to protect your eyes from pollen, especially during windy conditions.