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 Encyclopedia - Itchy Eyes

Why do eye allergies occur?
How do you know you have itchy eyes?
How can you prevent itchy eyes?

Most cases of itchy eyes are related in some way to allergic reactions. The eye is one of the most sensitive organs of the body. Because it is moist and exposed, it is easy for airborne allergens, such as pollens and pet dander, to adhere to the ocular surface causing allergic reactions. The eye is also more sensitive to systemic allergies, such as those to food or cosmetics. Allergic reactions in the eye are also called allergic conjunctivitis because the source of the problem is in the conjunctiva, the mucous membrane that lines the inner surface of the eyelid and the front of the eyeball (See Anatomy of the Eye).

Any condition that causes the eye to be irritated can also cause itching. Other common eye disorders that may be associated with itching are blepharitis and dry eye syndrome. For this reason, you should see an eye doctor if you experience itchy eyes.

Why do eye allergies occur?

Like all allergies, the allergies that cause eyes to itch are overreactions to foreign substances by the body's immune system. In response to these foreign substances, the body releases chemical mediators that are designed to protect the body, the most common being histamine. In people without allergies, the release of these substances are controlled and produces few, if any symptoms. In an allergic person, the mediators are released in excessive amounts causing itchy eyes, swelling of the eye area, inflammation, irritation, and excessive tearing. In essence, substances produced by the body itself are responsible for itchy eyes and other allergic symptoms.

Allergic reactions in the eyes, or ocular allergies, can be caused by something in the air such as pollen, animal dander, dust, or molds. They can be seasonal, or they may be perennial, affecting sufferers unpredictably throughout the year. Bacteria, food sensitivities, cosmetics, fabrics, soaps, and other substances may cause year-round allergies. Plant pollens and molds are the most common causes for chronic seasonal allergies. Ocular allergies in contact lens patients can be either environmental or because of contact lens solutions.

How do you know you have itchy eyes?

Itchy eyes often look red and are accompanied by symptoms of irritation, burning, and a full feeling. People with this condition have a tendency to rub their eyes and might also have blurry vision and/or some discharge. Allergic conjunctivitis may or may not be accompanied by other familiar allergy symptoms such as congestion and sneezing.

How can you prevent itchy eyes?

The best way to protect your eye from itching due to allergies is to avoid allergens completely. Some of the most common are cigarette smoke, cat dander, smog, some houseplants, and petroleum solvents. It is important to determine the cause of allergies where possible. An allergist can provide a comprehensive battery of tests.

Rubbing your eye aggravates the itching condition. Instead, apply cool compresses to the eyelids. Artificial tears can also help reduce the itching, and they wash away some of the allergens and the mediators produced by the immune system.

Antihistamines are medicines designed to block the release of histamine, which causes many of the symptoms associated with eye allergies. Oral antihistamines are convenient to take, but often take more than an hour to work. Some can also produce side effects such as drowsiness, irritability, and dryness. These work best when taken before exposure to the allergen -- a situation that is not always possible.

Many prescription and over-the-counter eye drops containing both antihistamines and decongestants are available to treat eye allergies. Some of these ease the symptoms of allergies, while others work to prevent the release of histamines. In severe cases, steroid eye drops may be used to relieve itching.

Because itchy, burning eyes may be an indication of conditions other than allergies, consult an eye doctor to determine the exact cause.

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