Most people associate sneezing, runny nose, coughing and hives as a reaction to some type of allergen and not something related to their eyes. Surprisingly, they are often experiencing allergic conjunctivitis which is an inflammation (-itis) of the mucosal membrane called the conjunctiva. This surrounds the white part of the eye called the sclera and covers the pink eyelid part of the eye called the palpebra. An allergic reaction can be caused by a hypersensitivity to environmental factors. Beyond the inconvenience of having watery, itchy eyes that can cause unsightly dark circles, this condition is usually self-limited to the season or to the irritant. Vision is usually only mildly affected with watery eyes but overall remains intact.
So what causes allergic conjunctivitis? Considering other parts of the body like the nose and throat, the immune system becomes hyper-vigilant and produces antibodies to counter a perceived threat. The antibody binds to an antigen, connects to an immune cell, which then, in turn, releases histamine and other chemicals that cause the itch, redness and mucus secretion associated with allergies. Seasonally this occurs with hay fever, tree pollens and molds. It can also work full-time throughout the year for those who are allergic to dust mites and pet dander.
How do we treat it? Often the best way to treat allergic conjunctivitis is avoidance of the allergens. If symptoms persist, an oral antihistamine such as Zyrtec, Allegra or Claritin usually work well. As always, be sure to talk to your primary care physician before starting any medication. Benadryl can be used as well because it is also an antihistamine drug, however, it is known to cause drowsiness. Artificial tears can help wash the offending allergens out of the eye decreasing inflammation and increasing comfort. Alaway and Zaditor drops are antihistamine mast cell stabilizers and are very effective in treating the symptoms of itching and redness.
The good news is that allergies are isolated to the individuals who suffer from them and are not contagious. When in doubt, it is wise to have a second look by your eye doctor, especially if the eyes remain red and your symptoms do not improve with over the counter treatments, to ensure no other medical conditions exist.
BIO: Dr. Hansel is an optometrist with Eye Surgeons Associates. He is currently the co-president of the Mississippi Valley Optometric Society and a member of the American Optometric Association. He practices out of the Eye Surgeons Associates Bettendorf, Iowa office.
The material contained in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider.