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Red, Watery, Itchy Eyes?

Dandelion blowing in the windMay is Healthy Vision Month, and spring has officially arrived accompanied by budding trees and blossoming landscapes. For some of us, that means red, watery, itchy eyes brought by pollen, flowers, and freshly cut grass.

The correct name for this condition is allergic conjunctivitis. Many people are familiar with highly contagious conjunctivitis, commonly referred to as “pink eye” that affects older children and adults.  A second type – bacterial conjunctivitis – affects infants, toddlers and preschoolers. Bacterial conjunctivitis is “self-limiting,” because it goes away in 7 to 10 days without antibiotics. Allergic conjunctivitis is a result of allergens and how they affect each individual. All three types share many of the same symptoms, but allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious.

What is it?

Conjunctivitis of any type is one of the most common and treatable eye conditions in children and adults. All types cause the eye to become pink due to the inflammation of the conjunctiva, the tissue that lines the inside of the eyelid and the white of the eyeball, and helps keep the eyelid and eyeball moist.

It is important to find the cause of your particular “pink eye” because there are different treatments for each type of conjunctivitis. Your optometrist is the best source of information, as he or she can identify which type you have and prescribe the best course of treatment.

Allergic conjunctivitis is most common when the pollen count is high or air quality is poor. A few other common causes include pollen, grass and ragweed, animal skin (dander), and smoke. With many trees and plants still blooming, allergic conjunctivitis is high right now in many parts of our area.

Symptoms for allergic conjunctivitis:

Normal eye versus inflamed eye

Common symptoms are relatively noticeable - they are on the surface of the body and have a distinct characteristic. These symptoms include:

  • Redness in the white of the eye or inner eyelid
  • Increased amount of tears
  • Itchy eyes
  • Blurred vision
  • Swelling of the eyelid

In allergic conjunctivitis, these symptoms are usually present in both eyes (not always equally).

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your eye doctor, and take the necessary means to prevent exposure to others (washing hands often, sanitizing your workplace, etc).  This doesn’t mean you have to completely avoid daily activities, but with the necessary precautions, transmittal of pink eye can be avoided with ease.

Treatments for allergic conjunctivitis:

Allergy-associated pink eye may disappear completely and allergy sufferers may notice a big difference on days when the pollen count is low or the air quality is good. Your optometrist may recommend one or more of the following treatments to relieve your condition:

Ocular (topical) decongestants: These medicines reduce redness by constricting small blood vessels in the eye. They are not recommended for long-term use. Using these drops for more than a few days can actually worsen symptoms.

Ocular (topical) antihistamines: These medicines reduce redness, swelling, and itching by blocking the actions of histamine, the chemical that causes these symptoms of allergy. They are available both over-the-counter and by prescription.

Ocular (topical) lubricants: People with allergic conjunctivitis often don’t produce enough tears which make symptoms worse.  Lubricant drops can be used hourly if needed.

Ocular (topical) steroids: When other medicines fail, your doctor may prescribe steroid eye drops to relieve the symptoms of conjunctivitis. These must be used with the supervision of your doctor, because they can cause elevated pressure inside of the eye, which can lead to vision damage. Your doctor also must check for viral eye infections, such as herpes, before ocular steroids are used. These drops can also increase the risk of cataracts, clouding of the lens of the eye that can impair vision.

Ocular (topical) mast cell stabilizers (such as Cromolyn): This medicine works by preventing specialized cells from releasing histamine. It works best when started before symptoms occur.

Systemic (oral) versions of the above medications: These are used for severe cases.

Tips for relieving allergic conjunctivitis:

  • If you wear contact lenses, remove them.
  • Place cold compresses on your eyes.
  • Try nonprescription "artificial tears," a type of eye drop that may help relieve itching and burning (note: other types of eye drops may irritate your eyes and should not be used). Do not use the same bottle of drops in the other eye if it is not affected.
  • The best defense is to try to avoid substances that trigger your allergies. An allergy specialist can test to determine what your specific triggers might be.

If you think you may be suffering from pink eye or seasonal allergies, contact The Eye Institute at 215.276.6000 to make an appointment with an eye doctor.