Spring is in the air—and the Eyes

By: Dr. Muggeridge

For us living in Ottawa, spring is an exciting time. Not only does it offer us refuge from the winter, which will affectionately be known to my future grandchildren as the fierce ‘Winter of 2014’, but is also a time of smelling the tulips and enjoying the bike paths and trails Ottawa has to offer. For allergy sufferers however, spring is in the air—literally, and can wreak havoc on their sinuses making it a miserable time of year.

In addition to coughing, sneezing, and runny nose, up to 40-60 per cent of allergy sufferers also get red, watery and itchy eyes. The clinical name for the ocular symptoms of seasonal allergies is: allergic conjunctivitis and studies show it affects up to 40 per cent of individuals during their lifetime. Although there are many causes of red, irritated eyes, the profound itchiness experienced by individuals with allergic conjunctivitis is often what differentiates it from disorders such as dry eye or bacterial conjunctivitis.iStock_000009307204Medium

The symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis are caused by airborne proteins called ‘allergans’ such as pollen, mould or animal dander. In the spring the most notorious itchy-eye producing culprits are tree pollens. Another offender is snow mould—a  type of mould that escapes its snowy prison once the warmer temperatures arrive. In the summer, tree pollens are replaced with grass and flower pollens, which are replaced in late summer by the infamous sinus-clogging ragweed plant.

An allergic response is the body’s natural way of eliminating the allergen. By producing more tears, our eyes dilute the allergen which helps decrease the allergic response. Unfortunately this same natural response also causes the red eyes and bothersome itchiness typical of allergic conjunctivitis.

There are several treatment options for allergic conjunctivitis depending on the severity. The first advice I give all my allergic conjunctivitis patients is to try to eliminate the allergen causing the reaction in the first place. This could mean shutting the windows and using the air conditioner more often or by staying informed about allergy forecasts in your area. A quick online search will pull up multiple websites that track and forecast allergy levels in your area.

 In addition to allergen avoidance, there are several other remedies for the treatment of allergic conjunctivitis.  For mild cases, cold compresses help soothe the eye reducing inflammation. Certain artificial tears help by diluting the allergen responsible for the allergic reaction. One of the most common mistakes patients make with allergic conjunctivitis is rubbing their eyes. Although it provides temporary relief, the mechanical action of rubbing causes the allergen to spread to other parts of the eye actually worsening the symptoms. For moderate to advanced cases of allergic conjunctivitis, it is often necessary for your optometrist to prescribe medicated eye drops that help fight the inflammatory response caused by seasonal allergies. Take control of your allergies this spring and visit your local optometrist to find out more about treatment options for allergic conjunctivitis.