Spring flowers are usually a welcome sight. But red, itchy eyes can keep you from enjoying the beauty of any season. Many people get a condition called “allergic conjunctivitis,” that can happen with the familiar sniffling and sneezing of seasonal allergies or on its own.

Allergic conjunctivitis is triggered when airborne allergens irritate the thin membrane lining your eyelids and the whites of your eyes. This membrane is called the “conjunctiva.” Symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis include:

  • Red, itching, burning or watery eyesConjunctivitis
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Sensitivity to light

Symptoms can be mild or severe. They usually happen in both eyes, but one eye might feel worse.

Allergic conjunctivitis can be seasonal or year-round, depending on whether the allergen is present all the time. Tree, grass and weed pollens are common seasonal triggers. In the Northwest, tree pollen is highest from mid-February to late April. Grass pollens are high from May to mid-September, while weed pollens peak between May and mid-October. (Source: UpToDate.)

Year-round allergens tend to be indoor – dust, animal dander, and mold. Other triggers for allergic conjunctivitis include smoke and perfume. If you’re allergic to certain foods, conjunctivitis could be part of your reaction.

Getting Help for Allergic Conjunctivitis

It might seem like rubbing your eyes will erase the itch, but don’t be tempted. It can actually make things worse. Instead, you can:

  • Use over-the-counter artificial tears, such as GenTeal® or Refresh Tears®. Some people are allergic to the preservatives used in artificial tears – to be on the safe side, ask your eye doctor for a recommendation.
  • Try antihistamine eye drops, such as ketotifen (Alaway™, Zaditor® and other brands). When your eyes react to an allergen, they produce a substance called “histamine” that causes redness and itching. Ramping down histamine production can relieve symptoms.
  • Put a cool compress – like a washcloth soaked in cool water – over your eyes for temporary relief. Use a fresh washcloth each time.
  • Take an over-the-counter antihistamine, such as fexofenadine (Allegra®), loratadine (Claritin®, Alavert®) or cetirizine (Zyrtec®). At night, you can try diphenhydramine (Benadryl®) – it can make you sleepy, so take it just before going to sleep.

Ask your eye doctor which over-the counter treatments are best for you. Your doctor might also prescribe eye drops that relieve symptoms.

For seasonal allergic conjunctivitis, limit pollen exposure by:

  • Staying inside, especially at peak pollen times – mid-morning and early evening – and when it’s breezy.
  • Wearing sunglasses when you go out. They shield your eyes from some airborne allergens and protect against damaging ultraviolet (UV) light.
  • Running the air conditioning in your house or car. Keep windows closed, and don’t use window fans – they suck allergens inside.

If allergic conjunctivitis symptoms last longer than two or three weeks, see your eye doctor. You could have a different problem, or a prescription treatment could help.

Do I Have Dry Eyes?

Some people with allergic conjunctivitis don’t make enough tears to wash out allergens. Having dry eyes can make symptoms worse. Only an eye doctor can tell if dry eyes are part of your problem. He or she can also make sure allergic conjunctivitis is the real cause of symptoms and recommend the best treatments for you. If you have severe dry eyes or you’re allergic to the preservatives in some over-the-counter products, your doctor might recommend prescription eye drops.

Wondering if you have dry eyes? In our next post, you can learn more about this common condition and your treatment options.

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