Yay, spring is here with the promise of warm weather around the corner! For us in the practice it is always a busy time treating many of our patients who are battling with their allergic eye symptoms.
Allergic eye disease is very common in New Zealand and Auckland in particular. While most of our patients affected are adults it is not uncommon for children to suffer from red, itchy eyes which are the hallmark symptoms of allergy in the eyes. Children susceptible to other conditions such as asthma, eczema and hay fever are even more prone to allergy in their eyes.
What is allergy?
An allergic response is the body’s defence reaction against a substance it perceives as a threat (an allergen). Common allergens include pollens, dust mites and pet dander. With allergen exposure, the body releases histamine, which causes inflammation of nasal passages and eyes, resulting in sneezing, redness and itching.
What happens in the eye?
Tiny inflammatory cells under the eyelids and on the conjunctiva, (the fine blood vessel layer over the white of the eye) increase in size, releasing mucous into the tear film. Blood vessels in the eye become red and inflamed, (conjunctivitis) and eyelids can become swollen. The eyes will water, often with stringy mucous in the tear film and will feel gritty and itchy. Rubbing the eyes increases the allergic response as this leads to the release of even more inflammatory mediators. In severe cases the cornea (the clear surface at the front of the eye), can become involved – this is known as keratitis. As the cornea is a sensitive tissue this leads to discomfort, light sensitivity and even blurred vision.
• Avoid the allergen – It is possible to arrange allergy testing through your GP. If dust particles are a problem, regular vacuuming or removal of carpets and frequent washing of bed clothes can reduce exposure. Pet dander can be minimised by limiting exposure to animals. Regular pet grooming can help. Pollens are more difficult, but wearing sunglasses when outdoors can reduce exposure.
• Flush it out! – Frequent use of artificial tears (preservative-free) can help wash out any allergens in the eyes and reduce exposure. Keeping artificial tears cool in the fridge will help reduce any inflammation.
• Anti-allergy eye drops – These can be effective in reducing the histamine released and therefore minimising the allergic reaction. Not all drops are suitable for young children. While many conditions can cause red, uncomfortable eyes, itching is usually the hallmark of allergy. However, if any of your family is experiencing these symptoms it is important to have their eyes examined by an optometrist to ensure they have allergy rather than an eye infection which requires different treatment.