As an optometrist, I get asked about how to prevent or cure itchy sensitive eyes. For some individuals, myself included, itchy eyes are the only symptom of hay fever, so it can get misdiagnosed. For others, it is a sidekick of the more common sneezing and runny nose.
This is an updated version of a similar post I have written before and I have also done this Instagram Reel which includes the salient points covered in this article). During this COVID era, many are still working from home so are not privy to air-conditioned offices and places of work. Others are spending more time in the garden or local park, so hay fever is likely to have a bigger impact.
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, which includes allergenic proteins. These proteins come into contact with mast cells. (Mast cells are immune cells, present in the lining of the eyelids as well as throughout the body and 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 hay-fever-induced itchy sensitive eyes. (Any word ending in –itis means inflammation). Conjunctivitis therefore, is the inflammation of the conjunctiva which is the clear membrane over the front of the eye. Vernal refers to a chronic, (or ongoing), seasonal form of conjunctivitis. ( Hay fever lasts for several weeks. This is different from allergic conjunctivitis, which, for example is a temporary ailment which happens after stroking a pet).
Vernal conjunctivitis is defined by any or all of the following:
-Itchy eyes (especially the inner corners).
-Photophobia, (sensitivity to light).
-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. Pollen is easily transferred from hands to eyes. If we have itchy, sensitive eyes, (and I know from personal experience), it’s nigh on impossible not to rub them. Reduce symptoms by implementing the following measures, so you are less likely to rub the eyes.
–Wear glasses/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 wear contact lenses, consider switching to your spectacles for the same reason. Wash spectacles daily with hot soapy water then 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 pollen on your clean sheets!)
–Close your eyes when brushing your hair. Pollen gets trapped in it.
–Shower, wash hair and change clothing if you’ve been outside.
–Don’t let cats*/dogs/other pets indoors if they’ve been rolling around in grass. Brush them outside to remove the pollen (while wearing sunglasses/glasses/a snood), or better still ask a family member without hay fever to do so.
*As a cat owner, I realise that this may be easier said than done.
–Tie hair back. Gents, consider shaving facial hair off. Pollen gets caught in facial hair too.
How To Treat Itchy Sensitive 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 gel-filled eye masks which contain a gel which can be cooled in the fridge.
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’re normally better value.
Please consult your GP, optometrist or pharmacist before starting any medication and for further advice. (If none of the above measures help, you can get prescription anti-histamine eyedrops such as Antazoline- see your GP).
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