What Is an Allergy?
It’s what happens when your immune system reacts to something that’s usually harmless. Those triggers, which doctors call “allergens,” can include pollen, mold, and animal dander, certain foods, or things that irritate your skin.
Allergies are very common. At least 1 in 5 Americans has one.
What Happens During an Allergic Reaction?
It starts when you come into contact with a trigger that you inhale, swallow, or get on your skin.
In response, your body starts to make a protein called IgE, which grabs onto the allergen. Then histamine and other chemicals get released into the blood. That causes the symptoms you notice.
What Are the Symptoms?
Your symptoms depend on how you’re exposed — through the air, your skin, food, or through an insect sting.
If you’ve got a nasal or skin allergy, common symptoms include:
Itchy, watery eyes
Itchy, runny nose
Feeling tired or ill
Hives (a rash with raised red patches)
Food allergies can also cause stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea.
If an insect sting was the trigger, you’ll have swelling, redness, and pain where it stung you.
Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Most go away shortly after the exposure stops.
Mild ones may be almost unnoticeable. You might just feel a little “off.”
Moderate symptoms can make you feel ill, as if you’ve got a cold or even the flu.
Severe allergic reactions are extreme.
Is It Anaphylaxis?
The most severe allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis. It affects your whole body. Symptoms can include:
Hives and itching all over
Wheezing or shortness of breath
Hoarseness or tightness in the throat
Tingling in the hands, feet, lips, or scalp
Anaphylaxis is life-threatening, so call 911 right away. If you have an epinephrine auto-injector, use it and repeat after 5 to 15 minutes if your symptoms haven’t improved. You’ll still need medical care right after you give yourself the shots, even if your symptoms seem to stop, because a delayed reaction could still happen.
A common eye allergy affects that clear layer of skin that covers the front of your eyes and the inside of your lids. Your doctor may refer to it as allergic conjunctivitis.
There are several different causes for this. But for the most part, if you’re allergic to a particular substance and then come into contact with it, you have an allergic reaction like itching and sneezing.
Causes of Eye Allergies
That layer of skin covering the front of your eyes? It’s the same type of skin that lines the inside of your nose. Because these two areas are so similar, the same things can trigger allergic reactions in both places.
Common triggers include:
If you have seasonal allergies, you generally have symptoms for a short time. You may be bothered in the spring by tree pollen, in the summer by grass pollen, or in the fall by weed pollen. The symptoms tend to clear up during other times of the year, especially in the winter.
If you have “perennial allergies,” your symptoms probably last all year. You’re likely allergic to indoor things, like dust mites, cockroaches, and pet dander. Seasonal outdoor allergens may make things worse if you’re sensitive to them, too.
Seasonal and perennial allergies have identical symptoms and, almost always, itching lets you know you’re having an allergic reaction.
Along with itchy eyes, you may have:
When to Get Medical Care
Your symptoms should improve on their own if you know what you’re allergic to and you can avoid it.
But if you don’t know what causes your allergy, skin testing by an allergist can help figure it out.
If you still don’t know or you can’t avoid the cause, a doctor who specializes in eye care and surgery — an ophthalmologist — may be able to help.
If you have seasonal allergies, make an appointment with him prior to your allergic season. This will let you start treatment before your symptoms kick in.
If you have perennial allergies, routine appointments may be helpful. Occasional flare-ups may mean you need to see him more often. It might also help to get a consultation with an allergist.
Questions to Ask the Doctor
Is there a specific cause of my eye allergy?
How can I ease my symptoms?
What to Expect
Your ophthalmologist may be able to diagnose your eye allergy based on the symptoms you’ve told him about. He’ll check your eyes to rule out other problems.
He’ll examine the front of your eyes using a microscope called a slit lamp. He’ll be looking for dilated blood vessels and swelling.
In rare cases, he may scrape that layer of skin that covers the front of your eyes to check for something called eosinophils. They’re cells that are commonly linked to allergies but are only found in the most severe cases.
Treating Your Own Eye Allergies
Get off to good start by avoiding whatever you’re allergic to. You can also try these tips:
Minimize clutter where allergens can collect. Limit pillows, bedding, draperies, and other linens, such as dust ruffles and canopies. Also, keep knickknacks to a minimum, since they can collect dust.
Go with as little carpeting as possible. The carpet can harbor dust mites.
Clean regularly and thoroughly. That’ll help limit dust and mold.
Apply cold compresses to your eyes to ease the allergic reaction.
Use artificial tears or lubricating eye drops.
Use over-the-counter medications , like allergy eye drops and oral antihistamines for mild allergies.
Try not to rub your eyes, since that can make your symptoms worse.
Medical Treatment for Eye Allergies
Lots of over-the-counter meds, like allergy eye drops and antihistamines you take by mouth, can help against mild allergies. Follow the directions on the packages exactly.
Prescription eye drops usually work well, and most don’t have side effects. Many of them are taken twice a day, and can be used to prevent an allergic reaction. Some common ones include:
Treatment & Care
There are lots of allergy treatment options. Over-the-counter and prescription medications can ease annoying symptoms. Allergy shots also help.
Allergy Medications: An Overview
Learn all about the different over-the-counter and prescription medicines that can help ease annoying symptoms.
When medicine is needed to stem allergy symptoms, antihistamines are often first in line. Find out how they can help and learn about possible side effects.
Learn how decongestants work – and who should not use them.
Anticholinergic Nasal Allergy Sprays
Atrovent nasal spray can help with certain allergy symptoms. Find out if it’s right for you.
Steroid Nasal Sprays
Steroid nasal sprays are one of the strongest allergy medications. Find out how they work and how to use them.
Allergy Eye Drops
Find out when allergy eye drops can help and who should not use them.
These medications are fairly new to the allergy world. Find out if they’re right for you.
Mast Cell Inhibitors
This type of medication can help but it’s all in the timing. Find out how to use it for best results.
For some people, allergy shots can mean the end to allergy medication. Find out all you need to know.
Advanced Reading: This article, written for doctors, provides in-depth information on skin allergy treatments.
Dehumidifiers for Allergies
If mold, mildew, or dust mite allergies are making you miserable, a home dehumidifier may help.
When to Use Your Auto-Injector
An auto-injector — such as EpiPen, Twinject, or Auvi-Q — can treat extreme allergic reactions with an early, life-saving dose of epinephrine.