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Allergic Conjunctivitis

Brian Hansel, O.D.

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Most people associate sneezing, runny nose, coughing and hives as a reaction to some type of allergen. Those people suffering are, surprisingly, often experiencing allergic conjunctivitis. Allergic conjunctivitis is an inflammation (-itis) of the mucosal membrane called the conjunctiva. This membrane surrounds the white part of the eye, or sclera, and covers the pink eyelid part of the eye, called the palpebra. An allergic reaction can be caused by a hypersensitivity to a variety of environmental factors. Aside from the inconvenience of having watery, itchy eyes, patients can also experience 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? The immune system in our bodies, including eyes, nose and throat, becomes hyper-vigilant and produces antibodies to counter perceived threats. First the antibody binds to an antigen and connects to an immune cell. In turn this connection 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.

Often the best way to treat allergic conjunctivitis is to avoid the allergens, such as dust mites, molds, and pet dander, that are causing the irritation. This can be a challenge. 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, since it is also an antihistamine drug, but 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 also effective in treating the symptoms of itching and redness.

The good news is that allergies are isolated to those who suffer from them. When in doubt have your eye doctor take a second look, 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 co-president of the Mississippi Valley Optometric Society and is a member of the American Optometric Association. He practices at 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.

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