Spring means sunshine, flowers, outdoor play dates and, for some, itchy, red eyes.
The number of cases of conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, is rising sharply this year as higher pollen levels from a season of heavy and consistent rainfall worsen the effect of typical indoor irritants such as pet dander and dust mites.
Conjunctivitis comes in two forms: infectious and allergic, both of which create their own brand of misery for the sufferer.
One in five adults and children suffer from eye allergies, one of the most common forms of allergic reaction and one of the most vexing, according to the California Optometric Association.
Those who experience red, itchy, watery eyes may be tempted to resort to quick-fix, over-the-counter drops and antihistamines that promise immediate, but temporary, relief.
But such self-prescribed solutions can be short-lived. Allergy sufferers often find that the discomfort soon returns – before long they’re back to rubbing their eyes, adding to the redness and irritation, and possibly transferring infection-bearing germs.
Children are especially vulnerable to infection. They are 50 times more likely than adults to develop infections in their eyes, which can quickly spread to their friends.
Ten-year-old Miros Vali, who wears contact lenses, knows about eye allergies firsthand. Miros said she has learned that you should "wash your hands and don't touch your eyes if they get itchy because you could make it worse, and make sure your hands are clean."
Not all itchy red eyes are caused by allergies. Some may be caused by infectious conjunctivitis. Allergies tend to affect both eyes at once, causing redness itching and swelling, while infections often start in one eye and generate pus and other symptoms.
In any case, “parents should be cautious and refrain from self-diagnosis and treatment,”
said Dr. Harue Marsden, president of the California Optometric Association. The wrong
medicine may actually worsen the symptoms.
It can be helpful to have an optometrist assess your allergy symptoms and concerns to rule out serious, more threatening conditions.
“Patients know their eyes best, but increased amounts of swelling, redness and pain should prompt a visit to the optometrist,” Marsden said.
Here are five ways to temporarily relieve discomfort, as recommended by the California Optometric Association:
When itching begins, immediately place a cold compress over your eyes for a few minutes. If you don’t have a compress, wrap some ice cubes in a wash cloth. This is also a great option for children as it keeps them from rubbing their eyes and minimizes chemicals being put into eyes from other treatments.
Put a bottle of sterile saline solution, preservative-free contact lens solution or a commercial eye wash product in the fridge to chill and then use it to rinse out itchy eyes. This is particularly beneficial if your eyes have been exposed to dust and pollen.
Preservative-free over the counter eye drops are best as those with strong preservatives tend to sting the eye. Avoid drops that promise to “get the red out” as they don’t help allergy symptoms or offer treatment. Instead, they constrict blood vessels which can have significant side effects.
If symptoms persist, an optometrist will diagnose and prescribe medications to treat the condition. Prescription eye drops are more effective at reducing inflammation and itch. Some are gentle enough that they are approved for use in children as young as two years old.
When in doubt, make an appointment with an optometrist because your family’s vision is too important to jeopardize.