Controlling your Tough Eye Allergies
Eye allergies are the body's overreaction to one or more harmless airborne substances such as dust, pollen or animal dander. Approximately 20% of the U.S. population suffers from some form of allergies, and almost half of them experience eye allergy symptoms. Allergies are thought to be hereditary, and many sufferers have a family history of the disorder.
Allergies can be classified as seasonal or perennial. Seasonal allergies occur only during certain seasons of the year and are often caused by pollen in the air from grasses, weeds, trees, or other plants. Perennial allergies occur year-round and are caused by more ubiquitous substances, such as household dust or pet dander.
Eye allergy symptoms
Typical eye allergy symptoms include:
- Watery eyes
- Scratchy or foreign body sensation
- Blurry vision
First line of defense: avoid allergens
The most effective way to control eye allergies is to avoid whatever is causing them. For seasonal allergy sufferers, this means staying indoors when the pollen count is highest. For perennial allergies, there are many things you can do to make your home more comfortable for you.
Reduce allergens in your home:
- Clean regularly. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filtration system to trap allergens.
- Minimize the dust mite population by keeping the humidity in the house low (30-50%). Use "mite proof" covers on pillows and mattresses. Wash bedding often in hot water (at least 130°F)
- Use a damp rag to dust or clean floors, not a feather duster or broom which will stir up allergens.
- Reduce mold by cleaning damp areas often (such as bathrooms, kitchen, and basement). Use a dehumidifier, if necessary, to control mold growth.
- If you have a pet that you are allergic to, keep it outdoors as much as possible, and do not allow it in the bedroom. Close air vents in the bedroom so that dander cannot migrate in from the rest of the house.
Avoid seasonal allergens:
- Stay indoors when the pollen count is high, especially during peak times (mid-morning and early evening) and on windy days.
- Keep windows closed and use the air conditioner when in the house or the car. Clean the air conditioner filter often. Do not use window fans.
- Wear glasses or sunglasses when outdoors to make it more difficult for allergens to enter your eyes.
Treatments and medications
- Artificial tears - these eye drops moisten dry, irritated eyes and can wash out allergens. They can be used as often as is necessary and can even be refrigerated to provide cooling comfort.
- Antihistamines - Oral antihistamines can relieve some allergy symptoms, however they can also have a drying effect on the eyes and increase irritation. Antihistamine eye drops are effective at reducing redness, swelling, and itching, but need to be administered every few hours.
- Decongestants - these eye drops contain vasoconstrictors which lessen the redness of the eyes by making the blood vessels smaller. They only treat the symptom, not the cause of the problem. Decongestant drops should only be used for 2-3 days at most, as they have an addictive effect. When you stop using them, you may experience "rebound" redness as the blood vessels, which have become accustomed to the drops, become larger than they were before the treatment.
- Mast cell stabilizers - these drops are used to prevent allergy symptoms by blocking the release of histamines. They must be used before exposure to the allergen, but the effects are long-lasting.
- NSAIDs (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) - these eyedrops can also reduce eye allergy symptoms such as redness, swelling, and itching. However, they may burn or sting when applied and may need to be used four times per day.
- Corticosteroids - these drops may be prescribed if you have chronic and severe eye allergy symptoms. There are risks associated with this treatment and possible side effects include glaucoma, cataracts, and secondary infection. These drops should only be used short-term under the close supervision of your ophthalmologist.
- Immunotherapy - tiny amounts of allergen are injected over time by an allergist, in order to gradually build up your body's immunity. The dose is increased over time, and treatment may take several months to reach full effectiveness. You may still need some medication after the treatment is finished.
Special concerns for contact lens wearers
Contact lenses can cause increased discomfort for allergy sufferers. Allergens can stick to the lenses and linger in the eye. Allergy-related eye fluids can also build up on the lenses, causing irritation.
To minimize these problems, ask your eye doctor for eye drops that can reduce your symptoms while keeping your lenses clean. Alternatively, consider switching to disposable contact lenses. Changing lenses daily will prevent long-term build-up.
Contact users must also be cautions when choosing eye drops. Some drops can discolor or damage certain lenses. Consult with your doctor before trying new drops (or existing drops with new contacts).
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