Spring allergies and your eyes
Friday, April 4, 2014
Ah, spring! The fresh, crisp air supplants that wintery bite, and the multi-hued flowers sprout through the rich dirt crumbles of the once frozen ground. Ears perk to the robin’s trill, and noses scrunch to the earthy aromas of new birth. Yes, spring. The air abounds with pollens, dust mites, molds, and pet dander. Eyes – puffy, teary, and red – weep in distress.
An allergic reaction is the body’s response to an external trigger. About 1 in 5 Americans are affected by allergies; their body’s built-in defense mechanism, the immune system, mistakenly attempts to fight off harmless stimuli. The eye is especially vulnerable to an allergic reaction in springtime when it is exposed directly to airborne triggers or allergens such as pollens.
The conjunctiva – the delicate membrane covering the white of the eye and the inside of the eyelid – is constantly exposed to environmental allergens. As the body’s immune system attempts to protect itself from these allergens, it releases a chemical mediator called histamine. Histamine causes the many blood vessels in the conjunctiva to swell, and in turn, causes the eyes to get red, teary, and itchy.
What to do?
The best way to combat these and other eye allergy symptoms (which might also include burning, light sensitivity, temporary blurriness, and general congestion or runny nose) is to avoid the trigger. When this is not possible, wear sunglasses or a wide-brimmed hat when outside to minimize allergens blown into the eye. Artificial tears or lubricating eye drops can also help to wash away allergens from the conjunctiva and to keep eyes moist. Eyes that are dry may aggravate symptoms.
Antihistamines or decongestants in oral or eye drop form can offer temporary relief for allergic conjunctivitis. Cold compresses may also help to soothe the eyes, especially with a sudden onset of symptoms or when the lids seem swollen. Rubbing the eyes should be avoided, as this could actually release more histamine and worsen the reaction.
Though eye allergy symptoms are annoying and uncomfortable, they rarely threaten vision. Nonetheless, other eye conditions such as infection may have similar symptoms (e.g. inflammation) and can cause severe damage to the eye. If symptoms persist or over-the-counter medications give little relief, it is important to see an eye care professional to assess and treat your condition.