Plus, how to avoid the most common causes.

By Maggie O'Neill
April 29, 2021
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Allergies can wreak havoc on your entire body—everything from rashes and sneezing to chest tightness and vomiting. Your eyes can also be affected by allergies, by way of a condition called allergic conjunctivitis, or swollen eyes or eyelids, caused by an allergen.

The good news: There are multiple treatment options for those who suffer from swollen eyes due to allergies, but not everyone should try treating the symptoms at home. Below, you'll find out about the causes of and treatment options for allergic conjunctivitis, plus when you need to see a doctor for help with your symptoms.

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Credit: Getty / AdobeStock

What is allergic conjunctivitis?

Different allergens can cause allergic conjunctivitis, including animal dander, mold, and dust mites, per MedlinePlus, a resource from the US National Library of Medicine. When your eyes are exposed to an allergy-causing substance, this causes your body to release a substance called histamine. When this happens, the blood vessels in your conjunctivae—the membranes that cover the fronts of your eyes and line the inside of your eyelids—become swollen.

When you're experiencing allergic conjunctivitis, it might be difficult to tell which part of the eye, exactly, is swollen—and the answer isn't always the same, Feryal Hajee, MD, an allergist and immunologist at Metropolitan Asthma and Allergy in Little Silver, New Jersey, tells Health. Sometimes, when a person is suffering from allergic conjunctivitis, the actual eyeball is swollen. This should warrant an immediate trip to a medical facility. However, other times, the eyelid is swollen, which should be treated, but doesn't necessarily warrant a trip to the emergency room, says Dr. Hajee.

Allergic conjunctivitis has been associated with other allergy-related health conditions, says Dr. Hajee, including eczema (a rash caused by allergies), asthma, and allergic rhinitis (or seasonal allergies). She adds that allergic conjunctivitis can be worse for patients who also suffer from dry eye syndrome.

What are the symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis?

In addition to swelling, the following are symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA):

  • Redness
  • Burning
  • Itching
  • Watery eyes
  • The feeling that there is grit or dirt in your eyes

According to the AAFA, you might notice the following in conjunction with allergic conjunctivitis symptoms: sneezing, coughing, itchy or runny nose, and sinus headache (all of which are other symptoms of an allergic reaction).

How is allergic conjunctivitis treated?

Oftentimes with allergy symptoms, the best course of action is to simply avoid whatever triggers an allergic reaction—for instance, if you're allergic to cats and you know your friend has a cat, suggest a meeting place outside their home so you don't risk having an allergic reaction to their pet. The same goes for allergic conjunctivitis, Kanwaljit Brar, MD, an allergist at NYU Langone, tells Health. "The best approach is to be preventative," Dr. Brar explains.

Experts advise making an appointment with an allergist if you find that you frequently suffer from allergic conjunctivitis—if your eyelids start swelling and your eyes start watering at seemingly random times—and you have no clue what your allergen is. "If you see an allergist, you can identify what you're allergic to; we can predict when patients' symptoms will [happen]," says Dr. Brar.

From there, an allergist can help you make simple lifestyle changes that eliminate allergic conjunctivitis and other allergy-related issues, says Dr. Hajee. So if your allergist tests you and determines that pollen is likely what's triggering your symptoms, they can advise you to stay inside during certain times of the day when the pollen count in your region is highest, says Dr. Brar. By tweaking your routine by, say, going on your outdoor run at a different time when the pollen count is typically lower, your symptoms might lessen without the use of medication.

If stronger action is needed, there are plenty of other options available. Your doctor might first recommend taking an antihistamine, though that might not help with allergic conjunctivitis as much as you'd like. "Eye symptoms are notoriously more difficult to treat," says Dr. Brar. Because of that, they may suggest you try eye drops, he says, adding that you can often find ones without a prescription.

If your symptoms are severe, your doctor might recommend allergy shots, which work by slowly building up your body's tolerance to your allergens, according to the AAFA. However, there's a good chance that won't be necessary. "Eye allergy symptoms may disappear completely when the allergen is removed," per the AAFA.

When do you need to see a doctor?

While there's a good chance that your symptoms will clear up once you remove whatever's causing them, you shouldn't hesitate to seek medical help if certain concerning symptoms arise, experts warn.

If your eyeball, rather than your eyelid, is swollen, you should head to a doctor's office immediately, Dr. Hajee says. Additionally, if your eyeball is in any pain, or if any area around the eye is in severe pain, that should prompt a visit to the doctor's office, too.

MedlinePlus adds that other symptoms—like if your vision is affected or you have a severe headache—also warrant emergency medical treatment.

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