As an optometrist, I get asked frequently about how to cure sore, itchy, hay fever eyes. For some individuals, myself included, it’s the only symptom of hay fever, so it can get misdiagnosed. For others, it is merely the sidekick of the more common sneezing and runny nose.
This is an updated version of a similar post I wrote last year. We are in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. Consequently, many of us are taking our daily exercise out of doors rather than in a gym. Many of us are working from home so are not privy to air-conditioned offices and places of work. And many of us are furloughed, again, myself included, which gives us more time at home and perhaps therefore, more time in the garden. Hay fever is likely to have a bigger impact because of these factors.
What Causes Hay Fever?
Hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen. Grass pollen is the most common allergen (May to July), but tree pollen in early spring and weed pollen in late summer are also responsible. Because pollen is airborne, it gets breathed in through the nose and mouth. This is why it affects the upper airways the most. When a grain of pollen reaches the damp lining of the nose or throat, it can burst and release its contents, including allergenic proteins. These come into contact with mast cells. Mast cells are immune cells, present in the lining of the eyelids as well as throughout the body. They are the first line of defence against “invaders” such as the pollen.
In some people, these harmless proteins cause no problem at all. Others are not so lucky, especially those with other allergies. Receptors on the surface of their mast cells bind to these invading proteins. This leads to the release of histamine and it’s the histamine which triggers sneezing. This is also what causes the secretion of fluid (mucus) and extra tears to try flush the invader out of the body.
Signs and Symptoms of Hay Fever Eyes
Vernal conjunctivitis is the proper term for itchy hay fever eyes. Any word ending in –itis means inflammation. So, conjuncitivits is inflammation of the conjunctiva, the clear membrane over the front of the eye. Vernal refers to a chronic, (ongoing), seasonal form of conjunctivitis, because hay fever lasts for several weeks. This is different from allergic conjunctivitis, which for example, happens after stroking a pet.
It is defined by any or all of the following:
-Itchy eyes (especially the inner corners).
-Pink or red eyes.
-Bumpy eyelids, especially on the insides.
How To Minimise Hay Fever In General
The way to reduce hay fever is to prevent pollen getting into the body. This is easier said than done, but there are a few things that will help, particularly when the pollen count is high. I’ll start with THE most important one.
– Wash hands frequently and avoid touching the face and eyes when possible. Not only can pollen be transferred from hands to eyes, but so can Coronavirus. If we have itchy hay fever eyes, it is nigh on impossible not to rub them as I know from personal experience. Please, please be mindful of this. If you can reduce the symptoms by implementing the following measures, you are much less likely to rub the eyes.
-Wear sunglasses. They act as a physical barrier and stop pollen as well as bacteria, viruses and other pathogens from getting into the eyes. If you usually wear contact lenses, consider switching to your spectacles for the same reason. Pollen, bacteria and viruses can live on hard surfaces. Wash glasses at least once a day with hot soapy water. Dry with a microfibre cloth or let them air dry. Lens wipes and sprays are fine for when you’re on the go, but soap and water is the best option.
-Stay indoors if possible. Close windows in the home and close air vents in the car.
-Avoid hanging washing outside. (You don’t want pollens on your clean sheets!)
-Close your eyes when brushing your hair.
-Shower and wash hair and change your clothing if you’ve been outside.
-Don’t let cats* and dogs in immediately after they have been rolling around in grass. Brush them outside (while wearing sunglasses/glasses/a snood), or better still ask a family member without hayfever to do so. *As a cat owner, I realise that this may be easier said than done.
-Tie long hair back and gents, consider shaving any facial hair off. Pollen gets stuck in hair.
How To Treat Itchy Hay Fever Eyes
A cold compress or an ice pack will help to reduce swelling and inflammation and will cool the eyes if they feel hot. You can make your own compress by wetting a flannel and putting it in the fridge until it’s very cold. Lie down and place it over closed eyes. You can also get eye masks which contain a gel which can be heated or cooled depending on requirements. Again, put it in the fridge or freezer before use.
Oral anti-histamines such as Piriton and Benadryl, will relieve hay fever eyes as well as the other non-ocular symptoms of hay fever such as sneezing and a runny nose. As with any medication, check that it is suitable for you first.
Eye drops which contain Sodium Chromoglycate, (sometimes spelled Chromoglicate), will reduce/cure vernal conjunctivitis. Sodium Chromoglycate is a mast cell stabiliser, so it stops mast cells from producing the histamine, which as I said above, is responsible for the allergic reaction. Optichrom is probably the best-known brand but see if there is an own brand version, because they are normally better value. They are available off the shelf in pharmacies. Do ask a pharmacist or your optometrist for further advice though if necessary. At this time, even though optometrists are not carrying out routine appointments, most are available for emergency appointments and/or telephone consultations.
If none of the above measures help, you can get prescription anti-histamine eyedrops such as Antazoline. However, it is difficult to see a GP during the Coronavirus pandemic, so it may not be an option.
A word of warning though. Like most eye drops, these contain a preservative which can occasionally cause irritation. It can also discolour soft contact lenses, so don’t wear contact lenses if you’re using such eye drops.
Stay Safe x
Pink sunglasses: Stepper STS-93010 F021, (gifted as part of an ongoing paid partnership)
If you have sensitive eyes, take a look at this post I wrote about makeup for sensitive eyes and contact lens wearers.