Itchy eyes: causes and symptoms of itchy eyes

Itchy eyes are an annoying problem. Do you suffer from itchy eyes, watery eyes, sneezing and/or a runny nose? Maybe you suffer from an allergy. You can get complaints such as itchy eyes due to hay fever, but you can also get itchy eyes due to dust mites. An allergic reaction is an altered, in fact exaggerated, immune response of the body to stimuli caused by certain substances (allergens). Normally these substances such as pollen, mold, animal dander or dust mites do not cause a reaction, but if you have an allergy they do. An allergic reaction can cause a variety of complaints, such as sneezing, a runny nose and red, itchy eyes. There are many manifestations of allergies. Hay fever and allergies to pets and (the droppings of) dust mites are very common. Itching of the eyes can also be caused by other conditions.

  • What is an allergy?
  • What allergens are there?
  • Allergic reactions: watery eyes and itchy eyes
  • Symptoms of hay fever: itchy eyes, sneezing and runny nose
  • What are the symptoms of perennial allergies?
  • Other causes of itchy eyes
  • Blepharitis
  • Corneal infection
  • Meibomitis
  • Dry eyes
  • Itchy eyes due to lenses
  • Itching of the eyes due to mascara
  • Itchy eyes in winter or autumn
  • Dust mites
  • Mold
  • Animals
  • Itchy eyes and dry skin due to Sjögren’s disease
  • Cause of itchy eyes and when to consult a doctor?
  • Therapy
  • Allergy
  • Eye drops for itchy eyes
  • Eye treatment and contact lenses
  • Other measures

Itchy eyes due to allergic conjunctivitis / Source: James Heilman, MD, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-4.0)

What is an allergy?

We speak of an allergy if you are hypersensitive to certain substances. You are not born with an allergy; you develop an allergy. At first your body reacts normally (that is, usually not) to a certain stimulus, but in the meantime you may be developing an allergy. This is called becoming sensitive or sensitization. Substances to which you react allergically are called allergens. An allergic reaction is an exaggerated immune response of the body to an allergen. You usually suffer from allergic complaints immediately after contact with an allergen (an early allergic reaction), but sometimes the allergic reaction only occurs hours after the allergic stimulus (a late allergic reaction). More allergies may occur in some families. In that case one speaks of a hereditary predisposition or allergic constitution. An allergy is a hypersensitivity reaction of the immune system to substances from outside the body that normally do not cause such a reaction. Your immune system should detect and destroy culprits such as bacteria, viruses and other foreign micro-organisms. With an allergy, your immune system reacts too violently to a specific substance (allergen). During an allergic reaction, certain antibodies (such as histamine) are released in the body, which cause the symptoms.

Hygiene hypothesis
There are strong indications that the explosion of allergies in Western countries is related to our overly clean lifestyle: the so-called ‘hygiene hypothesis’. This hypothesis states that due to the current (high) level of hygiene, the immune system has too few regular ‘enemy invaders’ to attack, as a result of which the immune system focuses on other substances that do not belong to the body, such as pollen (in hay fever) and certain nutrients.

Peanuts / Source: Istock.com/etiennevoss

What allergens are there?

Substances that cause allergic complaints in many people are:

  • Pollen or pollen from trees, plants or grass. This is the most common allergy, which is called ‘hay fever’. The complaints occur when the plants or trees in question are in bloom.
  • Dust mites, animal dander and mold. Dust mites occur all year round, with a peak in the autumn period. It is not the animal itself, but its feces that cause complaints. In that case one speaks of house dust mite allergy. If you are allergic to pets such as a dog or cat, it is the hair and dander that causes the allergic reaction.
  • Cosmetics: you may be allergic to an ingredient found in cosmetics.
  • You may be allergic to certain foods, such as nuts, peanuts, eggs, fish, shellfish, fruit, wheat and soy. With a food allergy, the body produces antibodies against certain proteins in foods.

Allergic reactions: watery eyes and itchy eyes

Not everyone with a predisposition to allergies responds in the same way and to the same extent to allergic stimuli. When the lower airways in particular are sensitive to allergic stimuli, this is called asthma. You then become short of breath and wheeze. However, many people have other complaints in the foreground. They experience a reaction in the nose and eyes, with sneezing, a full head, sniffling, watery and itchy eyes . It looks a bit like a common cold. The skin may also react with itching or hives, also called hives. These are swollen and itchy spots. A frequently made distinction is between:

Hives on the back / Source: DLdoubleE, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

  • Seasonal allergies (commonly called ‘hay fever’), which result from exposure to airborne substances (such as pollen or pollen grains) that only occur at certain times of the year.
  • Perennial allergies, which result from exposure to airborne substances such as house dust.

Symptoms of hay fever: itchy eyes, sneezing and runny nose

Hay fever mainly occurs in the spring and summer months, depending on what exactly you are allergic to. In many cases, hay fever is a reaction to pollen and grasses. Remember that different parts of the country have different pollen seasons, and pollen season varies widely from species to species. In the Netherlands, the pollen from wild grasses, alder, birch and mugwort (a wormwood-like plant) are the most allergenic. Hay fever can cause the following complaints:

  • itching of the nose;
  • itching of the palate;
  • itchy eyes/watery eyes;
  • the whites of the eyes and eyelids may become red and swollen;
  • itching in the back of the throat;
  • runny nose (with a clear, watery discharge) and the nose may become blocked;
  • to sneeze
  • the mucous membrane of the nose may swell and become blue-red in color;
  • headache;
  • cough;

Insomnia / Source: PrinceOfLove/Shutterstock.com

  • irritability;
  • occasionally depression, loss of appetite and insomnia may occur.

What are the symptoms of perennial allergies?

Perennial allergies are basically characterized by the same symptoms as hay fever, but the difference is that with a perennial allergy you are allergic to an allergen (or allergens) that are present throughout the year, such as house dust mites. Non-seasonal allergies can cause the following complaints:

  • itching of the nose;
  • itching of the palate;
  • itchy eyes/watery eyes;
  • the whites of the eyes and eyelids may become red and swollen;
  • itching in the back of the throat;
  • runny nose (with a clear, watery discharge), which can lead to (sometimes chronic) nasal congestion;
  • to sneeze;
  • the Eustachian tube can swell, causing loss of hearing (especially seen in children);
  • sometimes recurring sinus infections (chronic sinusitis) and/or nasal polyps.

Itchy eyes due to contact lenses / Source: Etan J. Tal, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-3.0)

Asthma
Some people with seasonal or perennial allergies also suffer from asthma, which causes wheezing and shortness of breath. These complaints are caused by the same allergens that contribute to allergic rhinitis (inflammation of the nasal mucosa on an allergic basis) and conjunctivitis (inflammation of the conjunctiva of the eye on an allergic basis).

Other causes of itchy eyes

Besides allergies, there are other conditions that can cause itchy eyes.

Blepharitis

Blepharitis is an inflammation of the eyelid margin, also called ‘eyelid inflammation’. With blepharitis you suffer from burning or itchy eyelids. In addition to irritation of the eyelids, redness and swelling may occur. The rim around the eye is red and sometimes speckled with white flakes. It is often a chronic problem, but it can also develop acutely.

Corneal infection

A corneal infection often occurs after damage, after which the area is infected by bacteria or other micro-organisms. The affected eye will be painful, red and uncomfortable and you will experience reduced vision, as well as eye discharge and itchy eyes.

Meibomitis

An abnormal function of the Meibomian glands (sebaceous glands of the eyelid margin) is called meibomitis and sometimes also posterior blepharitis. This eye condition often causes itchy eyes. Because the sebaceous glands of the eyelid are inflamed, problems arise with the lubricating and moistening function of the eye. Irritation of the eyes, swelling of the eyelids and itching are some of the complaints that may occur.

Dry eyes cause itchy eyes / Source: No3rdw, Flickr (CC BY-2.0)

Dry eyes

Dry eyes are a common problem, which mainly affects older people because they produce less tear fluid. Dry eyes occur when tear production is insufficient in quantity (quantity) or composition (quality) to provide protection to the eye. Some people do not produce enough tears or their tear fluid is of poor quality. This means that their eyes are not kept properly moist. This causes eye irritation in the sense of a stinging and abrasive feeling, as if there were grains of sand in the eye. Burning, itching and redness are the main symptoms of dry eyes.

Itchy eyes due to lenses

Itching of the eyes is also possible if the contact lenses do not fit properly, remain in the eyes for too long or if they are not replaced enough.

Itching of the eyes due to mascara

There are a large number of (usually chemical) substances that can cause eye irritation. This includes make-up such as eyeliner or mascara, certain creams and the material of glasses. Research which mascara gives you puffy, itchy eyes and switch to a different brand.

Itchy eyes in winter or autumn

Itchy eyes in the autumn or winter months may be related to dry air; Keeping the air sufficiently humid can reduce these complaints. You may also experience itchy eyes in winter due to perennial allergies (see above). This may include the following allergies:

Open ventilation grilles / Source: Martin Sulman

Dust mites

These microscopic bugs thrive in mattresses and bedding. Every mattress contains several million dust mites. With an allergy to house dust mites, the symptoms are caused by a reaction to the excrement of the house dust mite. There are all kinds of measures you can take if you have a dust mite allergy, such as:

  • Remove carpet, rugs and dust traps from the house as much as possible and use laminate or vinyl floor coverings instead of carpet. Replace your fabric sofa with a leather sofa.
  • Purchase special covers for your bedding that stop the feces of dust mites.
  • Wash your bedding at least once every two weeks at sixty degrees. At lower temperatures the dust mites do not die.
  • Ventilation is also important. Open the ventilation grilles or leave a window slightly open 24 hours a day, all days of the week. In winter, open the window half way.

Itchy eyes for cat allergy / Source: Chiemsee2016, Pixabay

Mold

Mold thrives in damp areas such as basements and bathrooms. When mold spores become airborne, they can cause allergic symptoms.

Animals

Most people are not allergic to animal fur (cat or dog), but rather to a protein found in pet dander, saliva and urine.

Itchy eyes and dry skin due to Sjögren’s disease

With Sjögren’s syndrome, tear and salivary glands in particular become inflamed, causing dry eyes, dry mouth, dry skin and a dry vagina (vaginal dryness). This may be accompanied by fatigue and joint complaints. As a result of inflamed tear glands, less tear fluid is produced and/or tear fluid of poorer quality. This causes you to suffer from dry and itchy eyes and a feeling as if there is sand in your eyes. Roughly 1 in 10 people with Sjögren’s syndrome develop thyroid complaints.

Cause of itchy eyes and when to consult a doctor?

If you have already been diagnosed with allergies, there is a good chance that this is the cause of your itchy eyes. If you have never suffered from an allergy, but you notice that you develop symptoms in the presence of animals, at certain times of the year, etc., consult a doctor.

Diagnosing an allergy
Normally you should see an eye specialist such as an ophthalmologist for problems with the eyes, but for allergies you should see an allergist or dermatologist. They can find out which allergen is causing your itchy eyes. To diagnose an allergy, the doctor in question will perform the following tests:

Blood collection / Source: Istock.com/anna1311

  • Anamnesis: an extensive interview with the doctor about your complaints;
  • Physical examination, in which the doctor mainly looks at the organs that may play a role in the event of an allergy: eyes (redness), nose (congested or runny nose) and skin on the head and arms.
  • Skin (prick) test, in which a drop of liquid is placed on your skin that contains an allergen, for example grass pollen or house dust mites, to which you may be allergic. A small amount of fluid is punctured through the skin with a small needle. After a few minutes, a reaction may occur if you are allergic to it.
  • Blood test, which can be used to determine antibodies in the blood, the IgE. The test specifically shows IgE antibodies in your blood against the allergens to which you are allergic.

Ophthalmologist
The ophthalmologist can examine the affected eye to determine whether you suffer from an eye condition. The doctor will ask questions about your symptoms, your medical history, your diet, and your lifestyle.

Allergy / Source: Mladen Mitrinovic/Shutterstock.com

Therapy

Allergy

Preventing itchy eyes caused by allergies is simple: avoid the allergen. If avoiding the allergen is not possible, symptomatic medications may help. These are medications aimed at suppressing allergy symptoms. Other medications include antihistamines, corticosteroids (anti-inflammatory drugs), nasal decongestants (to reduce nasal congestion) and allergy immunotherapy (to relieve most or even all of your allergy symptoms).

Eye drops for itchy eyes

In case of allergic conjunctivitis, eye drops with antihistamines are also available, which prevent histamine from being released in your eyes, so that your eyes no longer itch. Eye drops often work for 4-6 hours and immediately relieve itching without any side effects. In some severe cases of itchy eyes, you can talk to your doctor about using steroid eye drops to relieve the pain.

Eye treatment and contact lenses

Visit the ophthalmologist if you have eye conditions that can lead to itchy eyes. If necessary, the ophthalmologist can prescribe medication to treat the problem. If you think that your complaints are due to your contact lenses or the lens solution, discuss this with your ophthalmologist.

Humidifier / Source: Juanra09, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-3.0)

Other measures

Wear safety glasses when working with chemicals. A humidifier in your home regulates the moisture level, making you less likely to suffer from dry eyes. Good eye hygiene is important. In addition, it is wise to stop smoking and not to go into smoky areas. Avoiding scented candles sometimes offers relief, because these candles pollute the air with soot and other irritants. Finally, a healthy diet rich in vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids ensures that your eyes receive sufficient nutrients.

read more

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  • Conjunctivitis or conjunctivitis: symptoms and causes
  • Dust mite allergy: symptoms, medications and pets
  • Itchy eyelids: symptoms and causes of itchy corners of the eyes
  • Eye disorders: red eye/red eyes; itching/discharge/tears