The problems with allergies
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America estimates that more than 50 million Americans suffer from various types of allergies, and a reaction in your eye is often one of the first signs of a recurring allergy.
Allergies can be triggered by many substances. Seasonal allergies (also known as hay fever) are often caused
by the grass, tree and weed pollens abundant in spring and late summer. Other types of allergies, such as pet
dander and dust, can affect your eyes year-round.
Other substances called irritants (such as dirt and smoke, chlorine, etc,) and even viruses and bacteria, can
compound the effect of eye allergies, or even cause irritation symptoms similar to eye allergies for people who
are not even allergic.
Why allergies occur
Your body’s immune system protects you against illness by staying alert for harmful agents entering the body. If
this occurs, the immune system protects you by neutralizing, removing or destroying the harmful agent.
Allergies occur when the immune system mistakes a normally harmless substance, such as pollen or mold, as
a harmful agent. The body responds by producing certain chemicals to neutralize the substance. These
chemicals, called histamines, are what cause the itching, redness, swelling and irritation that you experience.
Many substances can trigger an allergic reaction. Most allergens that cause eye symptoms are airborne. Plant
pollen, mold, dust and animal dander (skin particles) are the allergens that most often affect the eyes.
Allergies can lead to a condition called allergic conjunctivitis. This is an inflammation of the conjunctiva (the
membrane that covers the inside of the eyelid and the white part of the eye). It may occur at about the same time
each year, when the allergen is most abundant (seasonal allergic conjunctivitis). The common symptoms of
allergic conjunctivitis is red, itchy, burning, tearing, swollen eyes, along with a gritty sensation. These symptoms
may be accompanied by a runny or itchy nose, sneezing, coughing, or a sinus headache. Many also find that
their vision is temporarily blurred, or that they feel distracted, unproductive, or tired.
Those in southern California do not deal as much with plant allergies as those in the Midwest or on the East
Coast, but we do have pollution and items in the air which may trigger the exact same reactions.
Relief of irritated eyes
It is impossible to escape your allergies. However, they can be limited, and you can take steps to relieve your
When possible, limit exposure to allergens. Stay inside when pollen or mold counts are especially high.
Also stay away from vents, fans, and air conditioners that can introduce these allergens into the air. For
cleaner indoor air, use air conditioner filters that are designed to reduce allergens in the air.
Over-the-counter products, such as antihistamine eye drops, can reduce redness, itchiness and other
symptoms. Artificial tears can also help by flushing allergens out of the eyes. These products are available
at most drug stores. Ask Dr. Velasco for her recommendations. Not all products are right for you.
When over-the-counter products do not alleviate the symptoms, prescription medications are the next in
line to combat the allergens. Let Dr. Velasco know, so she can write the best prescription for you and your
Other options such as allergy shots may reduce symptoms and the need for other medication.
Allergies and contact lenses
An allergic reaction can make the eye overly sensitive. Allergy symptoms such as itching, dryness and tearing can make wearing contact lenses uncomfortable. The protein contained in the tears from your irritated eyes
builds up on the surface of the contact lenses. This causes even more irritation to the eyes, which causes more
tearing, and the cycle continues.
Severe, recurring eye irritation causes some contact lens wearers to develop giant papillary conjunctivitis (GPC).
This inflammation leads to the formation of tiny bumps on the inside of the eyelids, making wearing contact
lenses especially painful or even impossible.
Allergies can also be due to makeup, the material of the contact lens, or the contact lens solution itself.
What contact lens wearers can do
Some eye symptoms and discomfort can be reduced with proper cleaning of your contact lenses. The following
tips may help:
- To clean a contact lens, hold it in the palm of your hand, and rub the lens in lens cleaner to remove dirt,
debris, oils, pollens and some proteins adhering to the lens.
- Make sure to use the lens care system recommended by Dr. Velasco. Ingredients found in many lens care
systems can make eye irritation worse.
- Replace your contact lenses and case frequently. This can help reduce eye irritation.