Allergic Conjunctivitis

Last Updated September 2020 | This article was created by familydoctor.org editorial staff and reviewed by Leisa Bailey, MD

What is allergic conjunctivitis?

Allergic conjunctivitis is a common cause of “pink eye.” It occurs when the clear, thin, membrane (conjunctiva) that covers your eyeball becomes swollen and irritated.

Symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis

The most common symptom is a red, swollen eye. Additional symptoms may include pain, and itchy, watery eyes. Allergic conjunctivitis can affect both eyes.

What causes allergic conjunctivitis?

Pink eye is caused by bacteria, viruses, or allergens. It’s diagnosed as allergic conjunctivitis when allergies are the cause. This type of conjunctivitis isn’t contagious. Some common allergens include:

  • Pollen from trees, grass, and ragweed.
  • Animal saliva or dander (tiny particles of skin shed by animals).
  • Perfumes.
  • Cosmetics (makeup).
  • Skin medicines.
  • Air pollution.
  • Smoke.

How is allergic conjunctivitis diagnosed?

To diagnose allergic conjunctivitis, your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and health history. He or she will examine your eye. If your doctor sees the irritation is severe, he or she may swab (using a cotton swab) the corners of your eye to send a sample of the liquid to a lab. If your doctor determines allergies are to blame, he or she may suggest you undergo allergy testing.

Can allergic conjunctivitis be prevented or avoided?

You can reduce your risk of allergic conjunctivitis by avoiding things that irritate your eyes. For example, if you’re allergic to pollen that comes from grass and trees, limit your exposure outdoors. Check weather reports for pollen and mold levels. Keep your doors and windows closed. Use an air conditioner during the summer months.

If you’re allergic to animals, consider not having a pet. If you’re around a pet, avoid touching the animal and then touching your eyes. Always wash your hands and body after exposure to allergens.

Allergic conjunctivitis treatment

There are many ways to treat the symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis. Some treatments include:

  • Tilting your head back, close your eyes, and apply a cold, damp washcloth over your eyes.
  • Taking an antihistamine. This is medicine many people take for allergies.
  • Putting lubricating eye drops (sometimes called artificial tears) in your eyes.

You can buy many antihistamine pills and lubricating eye drops without a prescription.

Along with lubricating eye drops, other types of eye drops can help allergic conjunctivitis. Some contain medicine. These medicines may include an antihistamine, a decongestant, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), or a mast cell stabilizer. Some drops contain a combination of these medicines. Some of these eye drops require a prescription.

As with all medicines, eye drops may cause side effects. You may experience burning and stinging when you first put the drops in. This usually goes away in a few minutes.

Talk with your doctor about which treatment is right for you.

Living with allergic conjunctivitis

Living with this condition can make you feel miserable for days at a time. It can affect your attention and productivity at school and work. It can interfere with fun and recreation. It can be a repeat problem if not treated or avoided. Therefore, it’s important to find out which allergens cause your conjunctivitis. Once you know what causes it, it’s important to avoid those things that may trigger the irritation.

Also, if you wear contact lenses, avoid wearing them while your eye is irritated. The contacts may cause the conjunctivitis to get worse. Wear your glasses until your eyes feel better.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do I know whether a virus, bacteria, or allergen is causing my symptoms?
  • Will conjunctivitis damage my eyesight?
  • Can wearing sunglasses outdoors reduce your exposure to allergens?
  • Does hand washing reduce your exposure to allergic conjunctivitis?