Red, watering, itchy eyes: spring blossoms bring allergies

Advice from Commissione Difesa Vista on how to avoid allergic conjunctivitis

The first days of sunshine are making a shy appearance, temperatures start to rise and the need to be outdoors increases: according to the calendar spring is officially here, plants start to blossom and allergies bloom. Red and irritated eyes are the typical symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis - inflammation of the very fine transparent membrane covering the white of the eye.


The World Health Organization has put allergies in fourth place in the list of the most common ailments in industrialized countries. In Italy, about 35% of the population is affected by allergies - around 20% are children and adolescents and 15% are adults. It is an ailment that is definitely increasing and is due also to significant changes in lifestyles and eating habits, air pollution, and changes in climate and plant life.


"Recent statistics have shown that allergies are increasing gradually and they affect the eyes in particular", explained Prof. Francesco Loperfido, Commissione Difesa Vista consultant and head of General Ophthalmology at the Ophthalmology and Vision Science Unit, San Raffaele Hospital, Milan. "By taking note of the pollen calendar and following some simple rules for preventing watery eyes and sneezing you should be able to enjoy the arrival of the good weather: sunglasses are an invaluable ally".


Allergies vary from region to region and from north to south depending on which plants are flowering in a specific area and on air humidity and pollution levels. The problem of smog should not be underestimated. "The increase in fine dust not only triggers coughs and bronchitis but also eye issues like itching, watering and reddening", the expert explained.


When affected by an allergy, the eyes become red and irritated: the symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis are a lack of pus and strong itching and swelling of the conjunctiva. Reddening and itchiness almost always affect both eyes and are accompanied by excessive lacrimation. First of all, it is important not to rub the eyes as that will worsen the allergic reaction. Rubbing the eyes "mixes" the antibodies and antigens (pollen or other allergens) and releases the histamine that causes itching.


The situation is made worse if there is little lacrimation. Especially in very strong sunlight, a strong wind or a dry climate, the conjunctiva tends to dry, the eyes become red and there is an annoying sensation of burning and itching that almost feels as if there were sand in the eyes.


It is essential to either avoid contact with allergens or reduce it to a minimum. This is why good quality sunglasses provide excellent protection. Wraparound styles are preferred because they help to keep pollen and foreign bodies at a distance.


Not to be underestimated are the so-called cross allergies. These are an emerging phenomenon concerning the synergic effects of food allergies and respiratory allergies, where one intensifies the other. For example, someone who is allergic to pollen will easily develop allergies to fruit and vegetables. It is caused by a protein that is contained in pollen and food, which the body recognizes as a potential danger to be averted. As well as starting an inflammatory reaction of the respiratory mucosa, this allergen also aggravates the oral and bronchial mucosa.


What can we do when we have conjunctivitis? "You can try to prevent an excessive reaction by using non-steroidal antihistamine eye drops at least 10 days before the allergy period explodes. They block the release of histamine and prevent the symptoms associated with it", Loperfido explained. Or "When you have allergic conjunctivitis you can use steroid eye drops. But the best solution is to have an allergy test and take the vaccine".


More advice for reducing irritation to a minimum: carefully clean the eye area with pre-moistened non-allergic wipes, avoid fields and open spaces, especially when the spread of pollens that cause allergies is at its height, dehumidify the living environment. For contact lens wearers, the best are daily lenses because any allergens on the lens can be removed every day and they guarantee greater hygiene and sterility.


Once again, it should be remembered that the best way to prevent inflammation is to protect the eyes by wearing good quality sunglasses every day. A wraparound style is preferable - because it is a protective barrier that keeps pollens and foreign bodies at a distance – with dark lenses for UV protection. Lastly, the living environment is also important: carpets are unconditionally excluded because they harbor not only dust mites but also any allergens that penetrate the fabric.


Obviously, from a medical point of view it is advisable to take an allergy test "but avoid periods when the allergy is at its height", Loperfido concluded. The tests are carried out during a "silent" period. "But patients should also keep a diary of their symptoms and link them with probable stimuli that cause allergic reactions. It will be useful for future investigations by the allergist".