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Allergy

17 October 2018

Do itchy, burning eyes mean you have an allergy?

Whether pollen or pet dander is the culprit, allergens usually affect the eyes in the same way.

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You may experienced red, burning or itchy eyes at some point in your life. There are various reasons for this, ranging from eye infections to allergies. Allergies commonly affect the eyes, even though it might not be the first thing we consider.

Allergies develop when the body’s immune system becomes sensitised and overreacts to something in the environment that typically causes no problems in most people.

While the symptoms of an eye allergy can occur alone, they usually accompany the sniffling and stuffy nose associated with nasal allergies

How many eye allergies are there? 

The main types of eye allergies are:

Symptoms to look out for 

Whether pollen or pet dander is the culprit, allergens usually affect the eyes in the same way:

  • Itching
  • Redness
  • Burning
  • Clear, watery discharge

Eye allergies also share symptoms with some eye diseases, which makes proper diagnosis by a doctor imperative. The above symptoms can vary from annoying redness and discomfort to severe inflammation that can lead to impaired vision.

Eye allergy triggers 

If you notice any of these symptoms, you need to consider what your triggers might be. Triggers for eye allergies include:

  • Outdoor allergens, such as pollen from grass, trees and weeds
  • Indoor allergens, like pet dander, dust mites and mould
  • Irritants, such as cigarette smoke and perfume

Living with an allergy 

Once you have pinpointed your allergy, the following points can help you alleviate the symptoms:

  • Avoid your trigger altogether. Limiting your exposure to the allergen can, however, be tricky.
  • Make use of the various treatments available. There are over-the-counter eye drops as well as tablets and syrups that are formulated to relieve not only the itchiness but also the redness and burning sensation as well.
  • Stay indoors on days when the pollen count is high. 
  • Keep the air conditioner running to clean the air. 
  • Remove your contacts, as the surface of contact lenses can attract airborne allergens. If you have to use contacts, try the disposable kind that you discard after one use. Alternatively stick to wearing eyeglasses.
  • Wear wraparound sunglasses to help shield your eyes from pollen and other irritants when going outside.
  • Keep your windows closed when driving.

What if it is not an allergy?

Itchy and burning eyes might not always be a result of allergies; it might be an infection.

Eye infections can be caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites or fungi and the symptoms may vary. Infections have a longer list of symptoms when compared to allergies. To get the right treatment and figure out what's behind the eye infection, you’ll need to visit an ophthalmologist. 

While eye allergies are not contagious, they can be a challenge to deal with. If it’s an eye infection, you run the risk of damaging your eye and spreading the infection to others. 

Image credit: iStock

 

Ask the Expert

Allergy expert

Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies.

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