Allergies are an abnormal immune system reaction to particles that are harmless to most people but that your body sees as potentially harmful. When you are allergic to something, your immune system has mistakenly identified that substance as dangerous to your body. Substances that cause allergic reactions, such as certain foods, dust, plant pollen, or animal dander are known as allergens.
Allergies: How do they happen?
Your immune system is designed to recognize potentially destructive foreign objects and then respond by neutralizing any possible threat they might present. This is a two-part response: swelling and inflammation serve to isolate the intruders, and at the same time specialized immune cells construct specific antibodies designed to fend off future attacks. This system is designed to distinguish harmful from harmless, but when this doesn’t work properly it’s possible to become hyper-reactive to relatively harmless intruders: this is called an allergic reaction. When working properly, antibodies to bacteria or viruses protect from potential harm. Unfortunately, when an antibody is directed against common, everyday environmental items such as pollens or animal dander, your immune system is prompted to jump into action. The next time you are exposed to one of these allergens, the antibodies generated trigger a cascade of histamine release leading to all the symptoms you associate with allergies: sneezing, runny nose, sore throat, cough, and itchy, watery eyes.
Every season can be allergy season…
Allergies can be seasonal or perennial. Seasonal allergies are due to environmental pollen and worsen during certain times of the year. Common seasonal allergies include trees, grasses or weeds. Tree pollen allergies typically occur during early spring through early summer, grass pollen allergies during late spring to late summer, and weed pollen allergies during late summer to early fall. Perennial allergies may occur year-round and are often difficult to avoid. They include indoor allergens like dust mites, animal dander, and mold.
Allergies can cause symptoms in various areas of the body including the eyes, nose, throat and skin. Depending on the severity of your allergy, your symptoms may develop within minutes or hours after you are exposed to an allergen. People will often develop allergies affecting more than one area of the body and will see some combination of these symptoms. Keep in mind that these are only guidelines, and each person’s immune system reacts differently to specific allergens.
Also known as allergic conjunctivitis, eye allergy symptoms include itching, redness, burning, eyelid swelling, and a clear or watery discharge from the eyes.
Also known as allergic rhinitis or hay fever, nasal allergy symptoms are the result of exposure to any allergen, not just hay. Symptoms include itchy nose, runny nose, sneezing, and nasal congestion. Sinusitis, which involves inflammation of the cavities and membranes around the nasal passageways, is very commonly preceded by rhinitis and rarely occurs without rhinitis.
Inflammation of the throat as a response to allergens is known as allergic pharyngitis. Common symptoms include sore throat, scratchiness in the throat and difficulty swallowing.
Skin inflammation as well as hives, eczema and contact allergies can affect the skin. More often than not, plants such as poison ivy and poison oak trigger skin allergies but skin allergies are not limited to these sources and can be caused by any allergen.
There’s more to life than allergies
There are a few simple steps you can take to reduce the frequency and severity of your allergy symptoms. First, identify the offending allergen or allergens and try to minimize your exposure. Though this may be hard to do, especially for people with active lifestyles, there are many choices of medications available that can effectively reduce or eliminate allergy signs and symptoms. About half of all people with allergies experience ocular symptoms, and it’s typically best to deliver medicine to the site of the allergic reaction. This means it is worthwhile to consult with your ophthalmologist about the most effective and appropriate treatment options for you.
Eyedrops are often the first method of treatment recommended for eye allergies. Some are available over the counter, while others require a prescription. There is a good degree of variability in responses to different types of drops, so don’t be discouraged if one drop doesn’t relieve your allergies. The drop your doctor recommends will depend on your individual symptoms and the underlying cause of your allergic response. The following are some of the classes of eyedrops you may be instructed to use:
The simplest approach is to wash the allergen out of your eye with artificial tears. These over the counter drops can be found in your local pharmacy and there are many kinds available. You may need to try a few different types to find the one that helps relieve your symptoms best.
Antihistamine eyedrops block the effects of histamine, the substance that causes the redness, itching and swelling associated with allergies. By blocking histamine, these medications are able to treat common allergy symptoms. Although they are usually effective, these drops vary in their duration of action. Because of this, your doctor may recommend you use these drops multiple times a day for maximal effectiveness.
Mast Cell Stabilizers
Mast cell stabilizers completely inhibit the release of histamine from mast cells which allows them to prevent the onset of allergy symptoms rather than just treating them. Because they act as a preventative, they are most effective when used daily beginning before the onset of allergen exposure.
Anti-inflammatory drops fall into one of two categories, NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) or steroids. NSAID eyedrops can help treat severe ocular itching but they may also cause a stinging and burning sensation. Corticosteroids are anti-inflammatories that are effective for treating severe allergies. It is important to consult your doctor for exact dosing information due to the fact that steroid drops are sometimes associated with an increased risk of infection, increased eye pressure, and an increased risk of cataracts.
Combination drops contain more than one type of medication and are designed to treat multiple symptoms. It is common to find an antihistamine drop in combination with a decongestant. These will reduce both itching and redness but are typically short acting. Another type of dual action drop combines an antihistamine with a mast cell stabilizer. While most of these drops are available by prescription only, they are known to provide long-lasting relief of allergy symptoms and have an excellent safety profile.
Treating the Eyes and Nose Together
If you are one of the millions of people who have allergies in both your eyes and nose, you may want to consider using a combination of medications in order to relieve all of your symptoms. Eyedrops are the best way to treat ocular symptoms but it may be helpful to use a nasal spray or oral antihistamine as well to reduce nasal symptoms. If you have both nasal and ocular symptoms, keep in mind that oral antihistamines may reduce tear production, drying the eyes and prolonging ocular allergen exposure. Finding the best combination may involve some trial and error, but relief from your allergies will be worth the effort. Be sure to consult with your doctor regarding your specific treatment regimen and to determine what treatment options will work best for you.