Answers by Mitchell Gossman, MD, an ophthalmologist at Eye Associates of Central Minnesota, located in St. Cloud
Question: What could be causing my itchy eyes?
This is a good question this time of year. As spring and summer approach, environmental allergy season will be upon us soon. Yes, that’s right, one of the most common causes for itchy eyes is allergies. However, you cannot safely assume that it’s an allergy because many other conditions can cause itching, and treatment as an allergy can make some conditions worse. Allergic reactions occur when your body’s immune system is triggered by a material that for most people ordinarily causes no problems, such as foods, chemicals, metals, drugs and pollen. The offending material is called an “allergen.” We do not know why some people are more likely to suffer from allergies than others. For the eyes, by far the most common issue is allergy to pollens, so-called “hay fever.”
Symptoms of ocular allergy include itching, puffiness of the eyes or eyelids, redness, and watering. It almost always affects both eyes. When accompanied by stuffiness of the nose, especially with hay fever, this is called allergic rhinoconjunctivitis.
What can be done about this?
This condition may be treated in the following ways:
• Reduce exposure, if possible, to whatever is triggering the reaction. For hay fever, one method is to avoid being outside when the pollen count is high.
• There a number of eyedrop medications that can reduce the reaction, some of them over the counter and others by prescription.
• Oral medications (antihistamines), particularly if you also have stuffy nose symptoms since eyedrops will do nothing for this.
We recommend undergoing an eye examination to determine what is truly going on rather than guessing and trying treatments on your own. Some of the conditions that can cause similar symptoms are:
• Viral or bacterial conjunctivitis (“pink
• Dry eyes
• Inflammation of the eyelids
• Infestation of the eyelids by bacteria or mites
• Corneal inflammation from any number of causes
• A reaction to eyedrops of any kind,
which could be the medication itself or
the preservatives in the drop
• Allergic reaction to contact lenses
• Thyroid disease
• Many, many others
If the cause is indeed an allergy, there are many treatments available, and it is best to try the one recommended by your doctor. There is no treatment that works for everyone, so it might come down to trying different medications to find the one that is right for you, factoring in how well it works, side effects, convenience, and cost.
Is it possible to determine what the specific allergen is that is causing the trouble? Yes – occasionally, it may be helpful to refer a patient to an allergist for skin testing to determine which environmental factor is triggering allergies. However, in most cases it can be determined the most likely cause based upon your history and examination. If it is not obvious what the cause is, it is generally not necessary to determine the specific cause, instead treating as a general allergic condition.
In the vast majority of cases, the symptoms can be eliminated or controlled to a tolerable level.
Find out more
Mitchell Gossman, MD., and Andrea Joplin, MD., are ophthalmologists at Eye Associates of Central Minnesota in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and see patients from all over Central Minnesota and the St. Cloud area. They accept new patients, and appointments may be made at 320-774-3789.