What's Causing Your Itchy Eyes?

When most people talk about allergies, they’re referring to “allergic rhinitis” – the sneezing and runny nose that result from the inhalation of airborne allergens. But there are allergies of the eye as well, caused by those same allergens.

According to the Harvard Healthbeat letter, eye allergies affect about 20 percent of Americans each year. And that percentage is rising. Called “allergic conjunctivitis,” the condition is linked to inhalation of airborne allergens such as pollens, animal dander, dust mite feces, and mold. No surprise then, the Harvard letter says, that people often suffer from both allergic rhinitis and allergic conjunctivitis.

Symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis are redness and itchiness in the eyes; tearing; swelling of the eyelid; and a mucous discharge. The Harvard experts emphasize that there is no danger to your vision even though these symptoms can get uncomfortable.

Your doctor can usually tell via symptoms if you have allergic conjunctivitis. Sometimes a skin test can be done to help identify exactly what’s causing those symptoms.

As for treating allergic conjunctivitis, Harvard says, avoidance is the “first line of defense.” If you are allergic to cats, don’t touch your eyes after petting one, and wash your hands right away. Pollen sufferers can get relief by keeping their windows closed in favor of an air purifier or air conditioner during pollen season.

And be sure to avoid rubbing your eyes. The Harvard letter explains that rubbing causes cells in the eyelid to release histamine and other inflammatory chemicals. Instead, you should can help stop the irritation by using artificial tears, which will dilute allergens in the eye.

For those who have only allergic conjunctivitis, the Harvard letter also suggests over-the-counter eye drops such as ketotifen eye drops (Zaditor, Alaway). This, the letter says, has ingredients that can help control “the immune-system overreaction that leads to your symptoms.”  Additionally, there are prescription-strength items that have the same function.

But if your symptoms don’t quickly respond to treatment, you may have another condition such as dry eye; see your doctor.

For those who have other allergic symptoms besides allergic conjunctivitis, Harvard cites over-the-counter oral antihistamines such as loratadine (Claritin), cetirizine (Zyrtec), and fexofenadine (Allegra), or the prescription antihistamines desloratadine (Clarinex) and levocetirizine (Xyzal).

If your eye allergies are severe, prescription eye drops that have corticosteroids can help. But be sure to use them only under the care of an ophthalmologist.

For more ways to pinpoint and treat your allergies, buy Controlling Your Allergies, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.