When your eyes are exposed to substances like pollen or mold spores, they may become red, itchy and watery. These symptoms mean you have allergic conjunctivitis. Allergic conjunctivitis refers to eye inflammation resulting from an allergic reaction to substances like pollen or mold spores.
The inside of your eyelids and the covering of your eyeball have a membrane called the conjunctiva. The conjunctiva is susceptible to irritation from allergens. It is especially common during hay fever season. Allergic conjunctiva is quite common and affects about one-fifth of the population. It is your body’s reaction to substances it considers potentially harmful.
Allergic conjunctivitis comes in two main types:
Acute Allergic Conjunctivitis
This is a short-term condition that is more common during allergy season. Your eyelids suddenly swell up, itch, and burn. You may also have a watery nose.
Chronic Allergic Conjunctivitis
A less common condition, chronic allergic conjunctivitis can occur year-round. It is a response to allergens like food, dust, and animal dander. Burning and itching of the eyes and light sensitivity are common symptoms.
You experience allergic conjunctivitis when your body tries to defend itself against a perceived threat. It does this in reaction to substances that trigger the release of histamine, a potent chemical your body produces. Some of the substances that cause this reaction are:
- household dust
- pollen from trees and grass
- mold spores
- animal dander
- chemical scents (e.g., household detergents or perfume)
Some people may also experience allergic conjunctivitis in reaction to certain medications or substances dropped into the eyes such as contact lens solution or medicated eye drops.
People who have allergies are more likely to develop allergic conjunctivitis. Allergies affect 10 to 20 percent of the population. They often run in families.
Allergies affect people of all ages, though they are more common in children and young adults. If you have allergies and live in locations with high pollen counts, you are more susceptible to allergic conjunctivitis.
Red, itchy, watery, and burning eyes are common symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis. You may also wake up in the morning with puffy eyes.
Your doctor will examine your eyes and review your allergy history. Redness in the white of the eye and small bumps inside your eyelids are visible signs of conjunctivitis. Your doctor may also order one of the following tests:
- An allergy skin test exposes your skin to specific allergens and allows your doctor to examine your body’s reaction, which may include swelling and redness.
- A blood test may be recommended to see if your body is producing proteins (antibodies) to protect itself against specific allergens like mold or dust.
- A scraping of your conjunctival tissue may be taken to examine your white blood cells. Eosinophils are white blood cells that become activated when you have allergies.
Treating allergic conjunctivitis at home involves a combination of prevention strategies and activities to ease your symptoms. To minimize your exposure to allergens:
- Close windows when the pollen count is high.
- Keep your home dust-free.
- Use an indoor air purifier.
- Avoid exposure to harsh chemicals.
To ease your symptoms, avoid rubbing your eyes. Apply a cool compress to your eyes to reduce inflammation and itching.
In more troublesome cases, home care intervention may not be adequate. You will need to see a doctor who might recommend:
- an oral or over-the-counter antihistamine to reduce or block histamine release
- anti-inflammatory and/or anti-inflammation eye drops
- eye drops to shrink congested blood vessels
- steroid medication for eye application (only in severe cases)
With proper treatment, you can experience relief or at least reduce your symptoms. Recurring exposure to allergens, however, will likely trigger the same symptoms in the future.
Preventing allergic conjunctivitis is difficult because the triggers are in the environment. The best thing you can is to limit your exposure to these triggers. If you know that you are allergic to perfume or household dust, for example, you can try to minimize your exposure to these allergens.