Itchy eyes? Try one of these soothing options.
If you have itchy eyes–especially ones that flare up during pollen season–you could have allergies.
Pesky, sure. But fortunately, there are dozens of remedies out there. For milder cases, look for over-the-counter eye drops and antihistamines easily available at any drug store. For more severe allergy symptoms, talk to your doctor about prescription treatments. He or she can also rule out other serious conditions that could be causing your discomfort.
Before you head out on a shopping safari, read this guide to the best eye drops for allergies. If you have any questions, talk to your local pharmacist, says Mohamed A. Jalloh, PharmD, a spokesperson for the American Pharmacists Association.
Decongestant eye drops
“Decongestant eye drops are typically those that make your eyes look better,” says Sunil K. Saini, MD, a member of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology and an allergist in Upland, California. “They shrink the blood vessels so you can’t see [redness].”
Decongestant eye drops are available over the counter and include common brands such as AK-Con, Vasocon, Visine, and Albalon. There are also many generic versions. Look for the active ingredient naphazoline.
But there’s a big note of caution here: Many of these drops are combination products that also contain so-called “redness relievers,” which may end up doing more harm than good. “If you overuse them, your eyes become dependent,” says Dr. Saini. You can end up with near-constant red eyes if you stop using the drops.
Doctors often recommend starting your allergy-treatment odyssey with artificial tears. You can find generic versions at your local drug store or brand names like Systane on Amazon.
“Sometimes putting a lubricant in your eye can wash away the allergen so you feel better,” says Jules Winokur, MD, an ophthalmologist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
Artificial tears are thicker and more soothing than saline washes, which can also flush out irritants.
Try putting the tears in the fridge before using them, Dr. Winokur says. “It’s like an instant compress.”
Antihistamine eye drops
Your eyes react to allergens the same way your nasal passages do: by releasing compounds called histamines to counter the foreign invaders. It’s those histamines that produce the allergy symptoms, explains Jalloh, who is also an assistant professor at Touro University California College of Pharmacy.
Eye drops containing antihistamines can thwart that response–but read the label closely before buying. Prescription versions, like Optivar and Emadine, contain only an antihistamine, but many store-bought antihistamine eye drops also contain a decongestant to temporarily erase redness. Only use these for short periods of time. Well-known brands are Opcon-A and Naphcon-A.
Anti-inflammatory allergy eye drops
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory eye drops are usually stronger than antihistamines and typically only used for severe allergies and for a short period of time, says Dr. Saini. One–ketorolac–is approved for itchy eyes; it’s the active ingredient in prescription eye drops Acular LS and Acuvail.
Prescription steroid eye drops–like Alrex and Lotemax–may also help more severe cases.
“These [prescriptions] should be written by an eye doctor who should also make sure nothing else is going on,” Dr. Winokur cautions.
Mast cell stabilizers
Mast cell stabilizers like Alamast, Crolom, Alomide, and Alocril can stop allergy symptoms before they start. Most are available over the counter.
“The mast cells are sometimes called allergic cells,” says Dr. Saini. “They release the histamines that give us the symptoms. A mast cell stabilizer inhibits them from releasing [histamines].”
Ketotifen (the main ingredient in mast cell stabilizers Alaway and Zaditor) has become the go-to drug for many ophthalmologists and allergists. “That’s probably the most effective of over-the-counter eye drops,” Dr. Saini says.
Mast cell stabilizer eye drops often also contain an antihistamine. “You’re basically attacking the allergy in more than one way, which I think can be helpful,” Dr. Winokur says.
Finding the best allergy eye drops for you can take a bit of trial and error. “Usually you try things and see if it works and then move on rather than hitting them all at once,” Dr. Winokur says. Consult your doctor to make sure the problem really is allergies, however. “You want to make sure red eye is not due to something more serious. You don’t want to treat it forever using eye drops.”