When your eyes are exposed to anything to which you are allergic, histamine is released and the blood vessels in the conjunctiva become swollen (the conjunctiva is the clear membrane that covers the "white" of the eye). Reddening of the eyes develops quickly and is accompanied by itching and tearing.
Allergies tend to run in families, although no obvious mode of inheritance is recognized. The incidence of allergy is difficult to determine, because many different conditions are often lumped under the term allergy. Keep in mind that rubbing the eyes makes the situation worse.
The best treatment is avoiding exposure to the cause or allergen. Unfortunately, this is not often practical. Discomfort can be relieved by applying cool compresses to the eyes or taking antihistamines by mouth (many of these are available over the counter).
If home-care measures do not help, treatment by the health care provider may be necessary. This may include:
Antihistamine or anti-inflammatory drops that are placed into the eye
Mild eye steroid preparations applied directly on the surface of the eye (for severe reactions)
Eye drops that prevent certain white blood cells called mast cells from releasing histamine; these drops are given in combination with antihistamines for moderate to severe reactions
Treatment usually relieves the symptoms. However, the condition tends to recur if exposure to the offending agent continues.
There are no serious complications; persistent discomfort is common.
Calling your health care provider
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you experience allergic conjunctivitis and it is unresponsive to over-the-counter treatment.
Prevention of allergic conjunctivitis is best accomplished by avoiding the allergen, if it is known. In many cases, however, this is impossible since the allergy-causing agents are everywhere nearly all the time.