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Here's what you need to know about managing eye allergies, feeling some relief, and the challenges for those who wear contacts.
Ah, sweet spring. It’s finally time to open the windows, let the fresh air in, and… achoo!
If warmer weather greets you with allergies—and the watery, itchy eyes can come with them—you’re not alone. An estimated 50 million people in the United States have seasonal allergies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pollen from trees, grasses, and weeds are the biggest antagonists, says Leonard Bielory, M.D., an allergist and professor of medicine, allergy, immunology, and ophthalmology at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine at Seton Hall University.
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to find fast relief for your most annoying eye symptoms—without staying cooped up in the house.
Your first reaction is likely to reach for eye drops, but steer clear of decongestant options, says Dr. Bielory. Vasoconstrictors are the typical agents found in over-the-counter (OTC) decongestant eye drops that promise to clear up redness.
“However, these have been known to cause redness rebound, which means redness that essentially returns once you stop using them,” he says.
Instead, ask your eye doctor to recommend an antihistamine eye drop. There are several available both OTC or with a prescription. Pro tip: Refrigerate your eye drops for an extra-soothing effect.
If the redness persists, your doctor may recommend taking an oral antihistamine or other allergy medication.
“Excessive tearing is a common sign of eye allergies,” says Dr. Bielory. “But in a self-contradictory way, it can also be a sign of tear film dysfunction, or dry eye syndrome.”
And even though the symptoms are shared, the go-to treatments are different. OTC oral antihistamines can help turn off the flow for eye allergy sufferers, for example, but they only make things worse for dry eyes, if that’s the underlying issue. That’s why your first step toward relief is getting the right diagnosis from your optometrist or an allergist.
A more effective solution for watery eyes, according to Dr. Bielory, are eye drops with both an antihistamine and mast cell stabilizers, which slow down the release of histamine. (In people with allergies, mast cells set off an inflammatory response by misreading harmless triggers like fresh-cut grass as a threat.)
These drops come in both prescription-strength and OTC versions; your doctor will determine which strength is right for your symptoms.
“Cold compresses are great for soothing your eyes and reducing any swelling of the eyelids,” says Dr. Bielory. Simply soak a clean washcloth in cold water and place it over your closed eyes for 10 to 15 minutes. You can do this a few times a day.
Artificial tears can also help. These drops dilute the allergens and chemicals in the tears, which in turn decreases the intensity of the itch.
And no matter how tempting it is, fight the urge to rub your eyes. You’ll only aggravate your symptoms. “Studies show that rubbing the eyes triggers the release of more histamines,” he says.
Allergy season is particularly dicey for contact lens wearers. Airborne pollen can get trapped on your lenses, making them another source of eye irritation.
“Daily disposable contact lenses have been reported to improve symptoms of irritation in patients that suffer from eye allergies,” Dr. Bielory says.
Even if you wear dailies, take a midday break to wash your hands, remove your lenses, and gently rub them with contact solution. And consider wearing your eyeglasses on days when the pollen count is high or when high winds are forecast.
As with football, the best defense against allergies is a good offense. Get aggressive with these prevention strategies:
Shower at night. All of the pollen swirling around in the spring air can cling to your hair, clothing, and skin, so rinse off each night to decrease your chance of waking up with puffy eyes.
Stay indoors in the morning. It’s no secret that eye allergies kick up when the wind is strong, so you’re wise to stay indoors when pollen is at its highest. Pollen counts are also typically higher early in the day. You can make sure the coast is clear by using weather apps with allergy trackers or signing up for email pollen alerts.
Drive with the windows up. After a long winter, it’s understandable that you want to cruise around with the windows down, but your eyes will thank you for resisting the temptation.
Turn off ceiling fans. Overhead fans and dry sweeping tend to stir up allergens, so it’s a good idea to turn to the AC and stick to mopping instead. Investing in an air purifier or dehumidifier can also help.
If you’re still experiencing troublesome eye allergies, consider following up with an allergist to assess nasal and other allergies and call your eye doctor. They can set you up with a personalized treatment plan to tackle your symptoms and allow you to finally enjoy springtime.
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