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Eye Allergies: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatments

Allergies can cause a range of physical reactions across your body, and the human eye is no exception. Some allergy sufferers ignore eye symptoms, choosing instead to focus on other effects like skin rashes and scratchy throats.

But overlooking the health impact of eye allergies can increase your risk of chronic complications like dry eye disease and vision loss.

Thanks to a range of eye drops and medications, you can manage the symptoms of eye allergies. Recognizing and addressing symptoms can be the key to reclaiming your quality of life.

Below, we’ll explain how to spot eye allergy symptoms, and share some methods for treating them and avoiding eye allergy flare-ups.

Eye allergy symptoms: Do allergies make your eyes hurt?

You might find that your eyes hurt from allergies, but pain isn’t the only issue. Other eye  symptoms commonly include:

However, different eye allergy types can cause flare-ups and slightly different physical effects.

Eye allergy types

There are four main subtypes of eye allergies. Each one can create different symptoms.

In an allergic reaction in the eyes, your immune system produces antibodies after you come into contact with a particular substance. During diagnosis, your specific eye allergy antibodies will give your allergist a clue about what’s causing your reaction to help guide your treatment plan.

Simple allergic conjunctivitis

This type of eye allergy generally causes a clear, watery discharge in both eyes that may not lead to crusting when you wake from sleep. You may also notice swelling and water retention in your eyelids.

It’s rare to feel pain or have vision difficulties due to simple allergic conjunctivitis. If you do experience these symptoms, it’s worth asking your doctor about other potential diagnoses.

Vernal keratoconjunctivitis

Symptoms for this type of eye allergy usually flare up most severely around springtime. These include:

A doctor might also find ulcers on your cornea and bumps on the underside of your eyelid, known as giant papillae.

Atopic keratoconjunctivitis

The symptoms of atopic keratoconjunctivitis may last much longer than with other eye allergies.

These include:

Because this variety of eye allergy can cause chronic inflammation, the eyelids and surfaces may go through changes. These can include new blood vessel growth and scarring of the cornea — the transparent outer layer of the eye.

You might also notice changes to the skin around the eyes.

Giant papillary conjunctivitis

This type of eye allergy starts similarly to simple allergic conjunctivitis before progressing to more severe symptoms, including:

Eye allergy complications

If you divert from a prescribed treatment plan or avoid treatment altogether, your eye allergy may progress into a more severe condition that risks further health problems.

The common complications of an eye allergy include:

It’s vital for your eye health that you seek swift treatment for both eye allergy symptoms and the complications of eye allergies.

What causes eye allergies?

Eye allergies are caused by an oversensitivity in your immune system. Contact with a particular substance might trigger an inflammatory response in you that it typically doesn’t cause in others. If a substance irritates your eyes, structures around the eye called mast cells produce histamine, which causes characteristic itching.

Allergens that can cause eye allergies

Specific airborne substances can trigger the immune reaction that causes eye allergy symptoms, including:

Certain perfumes or cosmetics can also cause allergic reactions in the eyes. Eye drops that contain preservatives may trigger a similar response. The safest option is always choosing preservative and allergen-free eye drops.

Eye allergy risk factors

Several lifestyle, environmental, and genetic factors can make you more likely to experience the effects of eye allergies.

Risk factors for eye allergies vary depending on their type:

Eye allergy diagnosis

If you notice symptoms of any type of eye allergy, seeking diagnosis and treatment is an essential step to avoid complications and preserve your vision. Other eye conditions can have symptoms similar to eye allergies, so it’s important to pursue an accurate diagnosis.

Eye allergies symptoms checklist

This checklist may help you distinguish between eye allergies and other conditions to get the most appropriate treatment:

🔲 I experience itchy, red eyes whenever my hay fever flares up.

🔲 I always feel eye allergy symptoms when I’m around specific triggers, like pets.

🔲 My eyes are sometimes or often swollen.

🔲 I’m constantly wiping discharge away from my eyes.

🔲 I feel these symptoms at certain times of year but not others.

🔲 My eye drops to treat dry eye disease contain preservatives and/or seem to worsen symptoms

🔲 My eyes experience pain or extreme light sensitivity after using a particular fragrance or brand of cosmetics.

If three or more of the above statements apply to you and over-the-counter (OTC) eye drops don’t seem to help, consider working with an allergist or other doctor to rule out other health problems.

Eye allergy quiz

It’s important to treat eye allergies as soon as possible. Quick action can help prevent severe complications like dry eye or corneal ulcers. Dry eye disease that causes scarring and tissue changes in your eye may even lead to irreversible vision loss.

Find out if you have an eye allergy by taking our helpful quiz.

What to expect during doctor’s visits about eye allergy

For most doctor visits related to eye problems, you’d expect to see an eye specialist. But for eye allergies, it’s critical to manage the immune response and avoid triggers. For that reason, seeing an allergist is often a smart choice.

The allergist or ophthalmologist will ask about your medical history as well as exposure to potential allergens.

An allergist can also provide physical testing to create a precise picture of your allergy status, including:

Eye allergy treatments: Drops and more

Some eye allergies resolve without treatment when patients avoid or clean away the substance that triggers the immune response. Other allergies require ongoing care, especially in the case of seasonal eye allergies.

Medications: How can eye drops help people with eye allergies?

Several medications can help alleviate the symptoms of eye allergies, including artificial tears, decongestants, and oral antihistamines. See how these treatments can help below:

Artificial tears

Eye allergies can contribute to symptoms of dry eye disease. OTC artificial tears can counter the irritating, disruptive effects of dry eye on your day-to-day life. They work by improving the quality and volume of the tears your eyes produce. Once you’ve restored tear production, your risk for redness, itching, and further infections significantly reduces.

For extra relief, you can refrigerate the drops. There’s no maximum dose for artificial tears — you can use them as much or as little as you need. But it’s crucial to choose a product that’s free of preservatives, as additional allergens found in some drops can make your reaction worse.

If OTC drops don’t reduce your symptoms at first, your physician, allergist, or ophthalmologist can prescribe more potent eye drops. As an alternative, a saline eye wash for allergies can have a soothing effect.

Decongestants

Decongestants help by narrowing the expanded blood vessels in your eye, which can reduce redness across the eye’s surface. This medication is available by itself or with a dose of antihistamines to manage the allergic reaction.

Decongestant eye drops are generally low-dose, so you’ll need to apply them four to six times a day for a maximum of two to three days. Using them longer can lead to a “rebound effect” that worsens symptoms, even if you stop using the drops.

People with glaucoma should avoid using decongestant eye drops.

Oral antihistamines

Some people take oral antihistamines to reduce allergic reactions. However, for eye symptoms, they might not be the kindest option for your eyes. Oral antihistamines can worsen symptoms of dry eye and eye allergy. They can also interfere with your energy levels and coordination.

If your physician recommends oral antihistamine medication for your eye allergies, ask about side effects and possible alternatives.

Prescribed eye drops for eye allergies

If your symptoms don’t respond to OTC interventions, a physician, eye specialist, or allergist may prescribe stronger treatments for your eye allergies.

These include:

Other prescribed medications for eye allergy

Your healthcare professional might also prescribe the following to address the possible causes of your allergic reaction:

Eye allergy home remedies

Eye allergies depend on contact with a triggering substance or foreign material. So — limiting exposure can help reduce the risk of a flare-up.

It’s not always possible to avoid airborne allergens. Even if you do your best, you may still experience symptoms and need eye drops or the assistance of a healthcare professional.

Outdoor allergens

There are a few ways you can avoid coming into contact with outdoor allergens:

Indoor allergens

Allergens can also enter your home. You can reduce exposure in the following ways:

Pet dander

If pet dander irritates your eyes, try the following to keep it at bay:

Eye allergies -  in summary

Eye allergies can be persistent, uncomfortable, and life-altering. Different types of allergies cause a range of symptoms, and you might find that some OTC treatments and home remedies don’t entirely reduce how your body responds to allergens.

However, help is available to reduce symptoms and manage your immune response over time. It might be time to consider using prescription eye drops that can help you soothe burning, itching, and grittiness.

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