By Marie Suszynski
Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
Seasonal allergies can be the cause of itchy eyes, but so can eye conditions such as dry eye or an infection. Knowing the difference brings you one step closer to finding relief.
When pollen is in the air, you may be inclined to write off itchy eyes as simply a symptom of seasonal allergies.
But itchy, irritated eyes can signal an eye problem needing different treatment.
While seasonal allergies may certainly be the cause of itchy eyes, keep in mind that there are a number of eye conditions — from an infection to dry eyes — that may also be the culprit, says Douglas Lazzaro, MD, chairman of ophthalmology at Long Island College Hospital and at SUNY-Downstate Medical Center, both in Brooklyn, N.Y.
One way to know if your itchy eyes are allergy symptoms or something else is to pay close attention to any other eye symptoms you’re experiencing.
Itchy Eyes: When It’s Seasonal Allergies
Seasonal allergies such as hay fever in the spring or ragweed in late summer and fall can cause an allergic reaction in the eyes, Dr. Lazzaro says. People with a dust mite or mold allergies can experience symptoms year-round, with combined exposure at home, at work, and outside.
Eye allergies can also be caused by insect stings and by household products — cosmetics, soaps, or other chemicals that you may have had on your hands when you rubbed your eyes. If you take glaucoma medication, the preservatives in the eye drops may even cause an eye allergy.
In addition to itchy eyes, allergies can cause tearing and make your eyes red, and you may notice a burning or stinging sensation. An acute allergic reaction, usually caused by an insect sting, will result in severe eyelid swelling and eye discharge, Lazzaro says.
Antihistamine drops will help get rid of the itch when allergies are the cause, but the effects don’t last very long. Doctors may recommend mast cell stabilizers, allergy medications that block the release of chemicals that cause eye irritation, or other types of eye drops.
Itchy Eyes: When It’s Something Else
One reason to suspect allergies aren’t to blame is if you have a problem with your vision. Allergies don’t usually cause changes in vision, but some eye conditions can, Lazzaro says. Here are some possibilities:
- Scratched cornea. The cornea, your eye’s outermost layer, may itch if it’s irritated for any reason, including a scratch. A mild injury to the cornea should heal itself quickly, but a deeper scratch that’s accompanied by pain, blurry vision, redness, sensitivity to light, and tearing needs a doctor’s care.
- Dry eye syndrome. Dry eyes are common because people naturally produce fewer tears as they get older. An eye that’s dry will also feel irritated and may itch. Dry eyes may also cause a decrease in the quality of your vision. The biggest symptom of dry eyes is having an eye that feels scratchy or sandy, but it can sometimes lead to more tearing, followed by more dryness. It may also cause you to have an eye discharge. Using over-the-counter artificial tears can help.
- Contact lenses. Contact lenses can dry the eye surface and cause itching. This is another condition that may be helped by rewetting drops, or you can switch to using glasses.
- Eyelid inflammation. Blepharitis, an eyelid inflammation, can lead to itchy eyes. “It’s an extremely common problem,” Lazzaro says, and it can point to a dysfunction of the oil glands at the base of the eyelashes. An ophthalmologist will diagnose blepharitis by examining your eyelashes. For treatment, you may be told to wash your eyelids with warm water and baby shampoo every night. Your doctor may also recommend applying an antibacterial ointment on your eyelashes if the area appears to be infected.
- Corneal infection. Infection can be caused by an injury to the eye, or by bacteria or fungi that get into the eye. Such infections lead to inflammation, pain, problems with vision, discharge, and itching. Corneal infections aren’t common, but they are the biggest complication of wearing contact lenses. Ophthalmologists use antibacterial eye drops or antifungal treatment to clear up a corneal infection.
- Pink eye. Pink eye is a general term for several diseases that cause redness in the eye. When pink eye is due to a virus, you’ll have a lot of redness, discharge, and irritation, Lazzaro says. Your eye may also itch.
The bottom line: If you have itchy eyes that don’t go away after a few days, see an ophthalmologist. You may need treatment other than allergy medication to relieve the itch.