Allergic Conjunctivitis

What is allergic conjunctivitis?

This medical condition 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, itch, and watery eyes.

What causes allergic conjunctivitis?

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

  • pollen from trees, grass, and ragweed
  • animal saliva or dander (tiny particles shed by animals)
  • perfumes
  • cosmetics (makeup)
  • skin medicines
  • air pollution
  • smoke.

How is allergic conjunctivitis diagnosed?

To diagnose pink eye, your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and health history. He or she will examine your eye. If your doctor suspects your irritation is severe, he or she may swab (using a cotton swab) the corners of your eye to send a sample 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 the things that irritate your eyes. For example, if you are allergic to the pollen that comes from grass and trees, limit your exposure to the 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 are 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

Applying a cold washcloth over your eyes can provide some symptom relief. Lubricating eye drops (sometimes called artificial tears) also may help. Antihistamine pills (which many people take for their allergies) may help relieve your symptoms. You can buy lubricating eye drops and many antihistamine pills without a prescription. 

Several types of eye drops are available to treat allergic conjunctivitis. They can help relieve itchy, watery eyes. It may keep symptoms from returning. Eye drops may contain medicine to treat allergic conjunctivitis. This includes an antihistamine, a decongestant, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), or a mast cell stabilizer. Some drops contain a combination of these. Some eye drops require a prescription. Talk to your doctor about which treatment is right for you.

Eye drops do have side effects. You may experience burning and stinging when you first put the drops in. This usually goes away in a few minutes. All medicines may potentially cause side effects. Talk with your doctor before using any medicine, including eye drops.

Living with allergic conjunctivitis

Living with this condition can leave your feeling 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. It’s even more important to avoid those things that 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?