Eye Symptoms

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Signs of Allergies

If your eyes are itchy, red, tearing or burning, pay attention to what they may be telling you. You may have eye allergies, or allergic conjunctivitis, a condition that affects millions of Americans. It is a condition that can occur alone, but often accompanies nasal allergy symptoms, such as sneezing, sniffling and a stuffy nose. While most people treat nasal allergy symptoms, they often ignore their itchy, red, watery eyes. 

Just like hay fever and skin rashes, eye allergies develop when the body’s immune system becomes sensitized and overreacts to something that is ordinarily harmless. An allergic reaction can occur whenever that “something” – called an allergen – comes into contact with your eyes. The allergen causes certain cells on the surface of the eye (called mast cells) to release histamine and other substances or chemicals that cause blood vessels in the eyes to swell, and the eyes to become itchy, red and watery.

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Symptoms can be triggered by many different seasonal and environmental factors, such as:

  • Outdoor allergens, such as pollens from grass, trees and weeds
  • Indoor allergens, such as pet dander, dust mites and mold
  • Irritants, such as cigarette smoke, perfume and diesel exhaust

How to Get Tested

Eye allergies share symptoms with some diseases of the eye, making accurate diagnosis very important. The symptoms of eye allergy can range from mildly annoying redness to inflammation severe enough to impair vision. If symptoms persist or over-the-counter remedies do not bring relief, see an allergist, who will review your medical history and symptoms and conduct tests that can reveal an eye allergy.

The tests may include an examination with a microscope, which will show swollen blood vessels on the surface of the eye. In addition, your doctor may test for a certain type of white blood cell that shows up on areas of the eye affected by allergies. This involves gently scraping the conjunctiva (the inner lining of the eyelid) and seeing if those cells are found.

It Could Also Be…

Other factors that cause eye irritation include:

  • Air pollution
  • Smoke (fire-related, second-hand cigarette smoke)
  • Dry air (arid climates, airplane cabins, office buildings)
  • Dust
  • Airborne fumes (gasoline, solvents)
  • Chemical exposure such as chlorine in swimming pools
  • Overexposure to sunlight (without UV-blocking sunglasses)