Eye allergies (also known as allergic conjunctivitis) are common and cause symptoms such as redness, itchiness, and swollen, puffy eyes. Eye allergies happen when the body’s immune system responds to triggers in the environment, like pollen and dust. The eyes produce histamine to fight the allergen, which causes the eyelids and conjunctiva (the mucous lining around the eye) to become inflamed.
Unlike conjunctivitis caused by viruses or bacteria, allergic conjunctivitis isn’t contagious, but it can be annoying to live with. You can prevent symptoms by trying to avoid triggers you know you’re allergic to. But this isn’t always possible, especially with allergens such as pollen. Treatments including eye drops can relieve symptoms, and other options may be available if your allergy is severe and persistent.
Eye allergy symptoms
Common symptoms of eye allergies include red eyes, itchiness, watery eyes, swelling, discomfort and being more sensitive to light. In severe cases, if the cornea becomes inflamed, your vision can be affected. Most people experience more than one symptom at a time. It’s common to have other symptoms, such as a runny nose, sneezing, headache, and sore throat.
Allergy eye symptoms happen when the eyelid and conjunctiva, the mucous membrane on the surface of the eye, become inflamed. This is due to the body producing histamine as an immune response to allergens.
Eye allergy treatment
The only way to prevent allergy symptoms is to limit your exposure to known allergens. For example, pollen forecasts can tell you about high pollen counts when you might want to limit time outdoors. Realistically though, it’s not always easy to prevent exposure, and treatments such as eye drops can relieve your symptoms.
In severe cases, long-term immunotherapy treatment may be an option. This treatment exposes your body to allergens in very small amounts over a very long time to reduce your body’s reaction to the allergen. You would be referred to an allergist by your GP for assessment and treatment.
Eye allergy relief
As well as medicines, there are other ways to relieve the symptoms of eye allergies. Try these simple home remedies when you’re having trouble with symptoms:
- Stop wearing contact lenses while your eyes are irritated. Allergens can become trapped under contact lenses, making the irritation worse.
- Wash your face and eyelids to help clear allergens from your face.
- Make a cold compress by soaking a washcloth with cold water and hold it over your closed eyelid. This can help with dryness and irritation.
- Tempting though it is, try not to rub your eyes, as rubbing can worsen symptoms.
What causes eye allergies?
Eye allergies happen when the body’s immune system mistakenly treats allergens as harmful and fights them. Mast cells in the eye produce histamine, and it’s this reaction that causes the symptoms of eye allergies. There are indoor and outdoor allergens, and it’s possible to have seasonal allergies (for example, due to pollen) and perennial allergies (for example, caused by dust mites). You’re more likely to develop allergies if both your parents had them.
Frequently asked questions
Eye allergies are very common, and while it can be hard to avoid the triggers entirely, treatments are widely available to relieve the symptoms. Most people can manage their symptoms with eye drops, but you might need to see a doctor for longer-term support, such as immunotherapy, if you suffer from severe and chronic allergies.
Medically reviewed by: The Royal College of Ophthalmologists on 28/07/2022
Edited by: Nick Astbury FRCS FRCOphth FRCP
Clinical Associate Professor
The Royal College of Ophthalmologists champions excellence in the practice of ophthalmology and is the only professional membership body for medically qualified ophthalmologists. The RCOphth is unable to offer direct advice to patients. If you’re concerned about the health of your eyes, you should seek medical advice from your GP, optometrist or ophthalmologist.