I’m afraid this is one of those do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do blog posts. I must confess that when my eyes are itching from pollen exposure I can rarely resist rubbing them. So I absolutely empathize with those of you who also fall victim to the sweet lure of eye-rubbing when allergies flare. But as a responsible physician, I must tell you that rubbing those itchy eyes is like pouring water on a grease fire. It only makes things worse.
Allergens (including foreign substances including pollen) like to stick to moisture-rich surfaces such as eye lids, eye balls, noses, and throats. Our bodies’ immune cells recognize these allergens and launch an attack to break down their proteins and remove them from the tissues. Specialized allergen removers, called mast cells, flock to areas that are heavy laden with pollen (or mold, pet dander, dust mite feces, etc.) Once they are near the allergens they break apart, spilling their acidic chemicals and histamines onto the invaders to break them down to remove them. These chemicals can cause stinging and itching sensations in the eyelid edges and other sensitive areas.
When we rub our eyes, we actually rupture mast cells at a faster pace due to mechanical traction. The result is that massive loads of acid and histamine are released into the already-sensitive tissues and the itching and burning often increases exponentially. So we rub harder!
As you can see, this is a vicious cycle that is best avoided. When your eyes become red, watery, and itchy from allergens the smartest course of action is to wash the area that has been exposed, flush the eyes with artificial tears, and try anti-histamine drops for itch relief. If you’re a contact lens wearer like me, try daily disposable lenses. A fresh pair every morning prevents possible allergens (that can cling to contacts from the day before) from being re-introduced into your eyes.
Let’s hope that pollen counts are more manageable next year, and until then we should all try our very best to remember the alternatives to eye-rubbing. I’m putting a bottle of artificial tears in my purse right now!
For more eye-allergy tips, please check out my recent interview with ABC News:
For further information about general eye health, please check out my Healthy Vision podcasts at Blog Talk Radio.
Disclosure: Dr. Val Jones is a paid consultant for VISTAKON® Division of Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, Inc.