Itchy eyes are often a symptom of allergies, or allergic conjunctivitis. Allergic conjunctivitis is more common in adults than in children, but it can develop at any age. It can be acute or chronic, and depending on the severity, you may develop additional symptoms such as a swollen eyelid or blurred vision. There are two types of allergic conjunctivitis: seasonal allergic conjunctivitis, which typically happens during the spring and fall, is caused by exposure to allergens like grass, pollen, and weeds. The other type is perennial allergic conjunctivitis, which happens all year long due to constant exposure to household allergens like mold, dust, and pet dander.
Itchy eyes can also be caused by diseases such as dry eye and blepharitis. If you are experiencing itchy eyes and you do not suffer from any known allergies, contact your eye care professional immediately to check for other conditions like those listed here.
Itchy Eyes Symptoms
During an allergic reaction additional symptoms may include:
- Watery eyes
- Red bloodshot eyes
- Swollen eyelid
- Difficulty seeing or blurred vision
- Inability to open eye due to swelling
- Congestion; difficulty breathing; wheezing
- Sneezing or runny nose
Causes of Itchy Eyes
Allergic reactions occur when the surface of your eye is exposed to allergens. The reaction triggers the release of histamines, causing itchy, red, watery eyes. Rubbing your itchy eyes is highly discouraged. As you rub your eyes, you release more and more histamines, which results in worse symptoms. You can also scratch or cause other trauma to the surface of your eye by rubbing the itch.
Itchy eyes can be caused by various eye conditions too. Dry eyes are known to cause discomfort and irritation. Blepharitis, a non-contagious eye disorder caused by bacterial or skin conditions, also causes itchy eyes. With blepharitis, the eyelids become dry, scaly, and itchy. Typically the eyelashes fall out. Sometimes eyelashes grow back abnormally—a condition known as trichiasis, which may lead to irritation of the eyeball.
Some people may be allergic to their contact lens solutions, which can cause redness, discomfort, itching, and inflammation. Thimerosal, a preservative used in ophthalmic products and found in many contact lens solutions, is one of the main culprits in allergic reactions to contact lens solutions.
Diagnosing Itchy Eyes
If you have already been diagnosed with allergies, it is probably safe to say the allergies are the cause of your itchy eyes. Like many other conditions, allergies develop with age. If you have never had allergies before, but notice you develop symptoms around certain smells or foods, or at certain times of year, you should seek medical attention. Typically you would see an eye care specialist like an ophthalmologist for eye problems, but for allergies you should see an allergist or dermatologist. Any of these professionals can help determine the cause of your itchy eyes. To diagnose specific allergies, one or more of the following tests may be preformed:
- Allergy skin test
- Blood test for allergies
- Food allergy test
- Physical examination
Your eye doctor may examine the affected eye to determine whether you are suffering from allergic conjunctivitis. Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms, your medical history, your diet, and your lifestyle.
Tips for Preventing Itchy Eyes
Preventing itchy eyes caused by allergies is simple: avoid the allergen. If avoiding the allergen is not possible, it is best to talk with your health care provider about preventive options such as eye drops, oral antihistamines, and decongestants. Visit your eye doctor regularly to watch for developing eye conditions such as blepharitis that may lead to itchy eyes. When working around chemicals, wear safety goggles. If you think you may be allergic to your contact lenses or lens solution, talk with your eye doctor about the problem. Take a look at these tips for preventing itchy eyes indoors and outdoors.
- Vacuum regularly to reduce dust and pet dander.
- Keep your windows shut to reduce outdoor allergens.
- Keep your pets out of bedrooms or areas you spend a lot of time in.
- Run your air conditioner to reduce indoor allergens, and keep your air filters and air ducts clean.
- Avoid smoking in rooms with little or no ventilation.
- Watch the news to check the pollen counts. Pollen counts are the highest between 5:00 am and 10:00 am.
- Dry your clothes in a dryer, not outside. Outdoor allergens stick to the fabric of your clothes.
- Take precautions before doing yard work. Wear a face mask and gloves.
- Take a shower after being outside to wash away allergens that have clung to your hair and skin.
The best way to avoid itchy eyes is to avoid allergens altogether. Never rub itchy eyes, because when you do you release more histamines, which only worsen the symptoms. Seek some form of treatment if you can not handle the itching. Talk with your eye care provider about preventive measures you can take and which products may work best for you.
Treatment & Relief for Itchy Eyes
You can either buy over-the-counter oral antihistamines such as Claritin or eye drops with antihistamines in them. Or you can go see your doctor and have similar medications prescribed. Antihistamines block the release of the histamines that cause itchy eyes. Some oral antihistamines can cause drowsiness, irritability, and dryness, and take up to an hour to begin working. It is recommended that you take precautions—i.e., avoid driving or operating machinery if oral antihistamines make you drowsy.
Most over-the-counter eye drops are good for four to six hours and relieve itching almost immediately, without any side effects. One OTC eye drop, Zaditor, relieves symptoms for up to twelve hours with only one dose. In severe cases, you can talk to your doctor about using steroid eye drops to relieve the pain.
If you see your doctor for relief of itchy eyes, talk to him or her about using Allegra or Zyrtec. Not only do they relieve the itching, they also relieve the puffiness, irritation, redness, and dryness of allergy eyes. Plus, they begin working within fifteen to thirty minutes and rarely cause side effects such as drowsiness. Prescribed oral antihistamines can be a lifesaver, especially if you suffer from seasonal allergic conjunctivitis. Taken ahead of time, they can last twelve to twenty-four hours. If your itchy eyes persist, you can also ask your doctor to prescribe eye drops.
Common prescription eye drops for allergies include:
Prognosis for Itchy Eyes
Itchy eyes that are caused by allergic conjunctivitis can be cured by removing the allergen, but the allergic reaction is likely to recur. In cases where the eyelid is swollen, swelling may go down greatly within twenty-four hours, with no further sign of swelling after forty-eight hours.
Talking to Your Eye Doctor
Here are some questions to ask your eye doctor about itchy eyes:
- What is causing my allergies?
- Can you recommend an allergist?
- If I begin seeing an allergist, will you keep in contact with them about me?
- To find out exactly what I’m allergic to, which diagnostic tests should I expect?
- What can I do at home if my eyes get itchy?
- Are there any over-the-counter products you recommend to people with itchy eyes?
- Are my allergies severe enough to need prescription-strength medication?
- Is there an underlying condition causing my itchy eyes?
Did you know…storing artificial tears in the refrigerator can make them especially soothing when you use them?
- J. Weizer, MD; J. Stein, MD, MS “Reader’s Digest Guide to Eye Care” (Quantum Publishing, Ltd. 2009) 108-111
- J. DiGirolamo, MD “The Big Book of Family Eye Care” (Basic Health Publications, 2011) 179