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How Our Eyes Respond to Allergies and Other Irritants

How Our Eyes Respond to Allergies and Other Irritants

They say that the eyes are the window to the soul. When you live near Asheville, those windows let in plenty of pollen. Adding dust, molds, and pet dander to the mix can make for a long spring… and summer… and fall.

While the region offers endless beauty and stunning scenery, nature can take a toll on our eyes. Our fair state can seem unfair if you’re prone to allergies and sensitive to irritants! In fact, North Carolina is one of the “worst” states when it comes to allergies — and staring at screens for work and entertainment only stresses our eyes more.

How do our eyes respond to these attacks — and what can you do if common allergens and irritants cause more than common discomfort and trouble?

When Eye Irritations Attack

Eyes are delicate; this is why our bodies step up to provide protection. From lashes to catch dust and debris to bony sockets to shield them from impact, eyes use a number of defenses to ensure they stay safe, moist, and functioning properly.

When it comes to allergens and irritants, the first line of defense is our tears. Your body produces tears in an effort to flush contaminants from your eyes. So, when you go hiking and a mosquito invades your eye or you’re around a campfire and smoke blurs your vision, tears work to wash these irritants out.

Sometimes, contaminants damage the eye, causing minute scratches on the surface. This is when your body’s immune system suits up and goes on the defensive. During an inflammatory response, surface blood vessels swell and the damaged tissue releases chemicals like histamine. This allows antibodies to reach the irritation more easily.

So, while you’re dealing with red, swollen, itchy eyes, this is a natural, and even beneficial, reaction that speeds up healing.

You’re Overreacting

When the eyes encounter irritants, most people’s tear and inflammatory responses take care of the problem relatively quickly. Allergies are a bit different. If you think of your immune system as an army, allergies are when your soldiers go rogue. Your body reacts to irritants like pollen, dust, mold, or pet dander with a full-blown immune response.

For most people, these contaminants do not cause much more than momentary irritation until they are flushed out. For those with allergies, the immune system essentially misfires, overreacting to the “trigger.”

From there, you’ll experience that inflammatory response described earlier — and that means suffering from red, itchy, watery, swollen eyes.

How Do You Soothe Irritated Eyes?

The best defense is a good offense. You can take a few simple steps to limit your exposure to irritants and allergens, including:

  • Closing windows during peak pollen periods.
  • Wearing sunglasses or glasses to keep irritants out.
  • Controlling mold with a dehumidifier.
  • Washing your hands after encountering potential irritants (e.g. petting an animal, handling flowers, etc.).
  • Using a mite-proof mattress cover.
  • Washing bedding regularly.
  • Checking weather forecasts for allergy alerts. If you can, plan outdoor activities for days after it has rained.

When you can’t avoid irritation, you can alleviate symptoms and discomfort by:

  • Placing a cool compress over your eyes. A bag of frozen peas will do in a pinch!
  • Using artificial tears or over-the-counter saline solutions.
  • Being careful with decongestant eye drops and oral antihistamines; they can dry out the eyes and worsen your symptoms.
  • Not rubbing your eyes! It’s a natural reaction but rubbing your eyes can make your symptoms worse.
  • Using OTC eye drops containing ketotifen; this will not cause “rebound” redness like decongestant drops.
  • Seeing your eye care specialist.

When is it time to visit your optometrist?

  • Your symptoms persist and make it difficult for you to work or sleep.
  • You need more relief than that offered by over-the-counter medications.
  • You experience pain.
  • Your eyes are sensitive to light.
  • Your vision is impaired.
  • Your eyes are excessively red.

Symptoms like these may indicate that your body is fighting something other than allergies. Whether it is an infection or another condition that requires treatment, an accurate and timely diagnosis is a must. If it is allergies, your optometrist can prescribe effective medications to alleviate your symptoms.

Allergens and irritants are...well, irritating. Our eyes are constantly exposed to contaminants that can produce an uncomfortable reaction. Do your best to limit exposure, reduce your symptoms, and protect your eyes and vision. We are here to help you keep the windows to your soul clear and sparkling!