Treating Eye Allergies When You Wear Contacts

Eye drops are fine, as long as you choose and use them carefully

Allergies
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If you're one of the millions of Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies, you might be doubly miserable during allergy season if you wear contacts. Allergens are attracted to contact lenses, making your baby blues a veritable magnet for irritants like pollen and ragweed.

The good news is, there are plenty of options for dealing with seasonal allergy symptoms that affect eyes, such as burning, itching, redness, swelling, and tearing up.

Some folks get relief from medications that don't go directly into the eyes, including antihistamine pills or nasal sprays. But eye drops aren't at all out of the question for people who wear contact lenses. Talk to your allergist or ophthalmologist about which treatments are best for you. Meanwhile, here are some that are often recommended, plus non-drug tips for getting relief from the misery of eye allergies.

How to Use Allergy Eye Drops

As with most medications, eye drops for treating allergy symptoms are available over the counter as well as by prescription. One of the most widely used OTC one is ketotifen, which is sold under the brand names Zaditor and Alaway. Prescription allergy eye drops include Pataday (olopatadine) and Optivar (azelastine). All of these drugs are antihistamines that work by blocking a substance found in the cells of the body called histamine. When an allergen such as pollen gets inside of the body, histamine reacts by causing allergy symptoms.

Eye drops that contain antihistamine are safe to use with soft contact lenses, but before you head to the drug store for OTC eye drops, see your doctor to make sure any redness and irritation you're experiencing is due to allergies rather than symptoms of an infection or an adverse reaction to your contacts.

When you get the green light to use eye drops, follow the prescribing information on the package carefully: It's usually recommended to put antihistamine drops in your eyes while you aren't wearing your lenses and to wait at least 10 minutes before you put them in. This is because the drops contain an anti-bacterial preservative called benzalkonium that's easily absorbed by contact lenses. 

Non-Drug Ways to Relieve Your Itchy Eyes

Besides using drops to head off eye allergy symptoms, there are other tactics you can use to relieve them. Experiment with any or all of these to find which work best for you. 

  • Grab your glasses. You may prefer wearing contact lenses, but you will most likely be more comfortable in your glasses during allergy season.
  • Keep your contacts clean. When you do wear contacts during allergy season, be extra vigilant with your contact cleaning routine and use a preservative-free solution. The more care you take with your lenses, the less likely they are to harbor allergens.
  • Get teary on purpose. Artificial tears, which you can buy over the counter, can help wash out allergens and soothe your eyes. The Mayo Clinic recommends opting for artificial tears that are preservative-free, at least if you use them more than four times a day. Preservatives, which are added to drops to prevent bacteria from growing in the bottle after it's opened, can irritate eyes further. And steer clear of drops formulated to reduce redness: They won't make your eyes feel better and may even irritate them over time. 
  • Don't rub your eyes. Instead, use a cool compress to help soothe them and to relieve the itch temporarily. 
  • Shower before bed. Allergens accumulate on body surfaces and clothing throughout the day. By washing them off before you hit the hay you avoid transferring allergens onto your bed linens and lower the risk of being exposed to them during the night. 

Sources:

Ono SJ, Abelson MB. "Allergic Conjunctivitis: Update on Pathophysiology and Prospects for Future Treatment." J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2005; 115:118-22.

Mayo Clinic. "I Have Dry Eyes. What Should I Look For When Selecting Artificial Tears?" Feb 11, 2016.

Medline Plus. "Azelastine Ophthalmic."

Medline Plus. "Ketotifen Ophthalmic."

Medline Plus. "Olopatadine Ophthalmic."

 

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