Eye Allergies and Contact Lenses


So it is allergy season again and, like many, I have spouts of itchy, watery eyes. I wear glasses for reading (and look no further than EOB for some great frame and lens options, including contacts), yet what about contact lenses and lens discomfort? During allergy season many wearers of contact lenses see an increase in eye discomfort, leading many to believe they are becoming allergic to them. Well, as we explore this issue here today, and there are some good bits of advice to consider, nothing replaces a prompt appointment with your eye care professional. I can't emphasize that enough. And take heart, there are solutions to your eye pain and irritation!  portland-eye-doctor  

How Do You Know if You Have a Contacts-related Allergy?

First and foremost with an eye condition, of any kind, is to see your eye care professional. You will see me repeating that at several points throughout this article and whenever I'm writing about an eye-related health condition. The main reason for this is that, un-diagnosed, you can actually do more harm to your eyes by self-treating. It just pays to know what exactly is going on, and how to treat it, from someone that makes their living doing just that. Now that said, let's explore further this issue of contact lens-related eye allergies.

When I hear the word "allergy" I think of "allergic reaction." Usually this makes me think of a sudden onset condition, like getting stung by a bee (and a quick swell up), or someone unfortunate enough to have an allergy to peanut butter...where just a bit of exposure causes a rapid and very dangerous condition of swelling that can close off one's airway. Well, the fact is, while some allergies behave like this, many others come on much more slowly. This slow nature can make the causal factor(s) difficult to pinpoint.

With the gradual nature of allergies at work, you could become allergic to things you use everyday, seemingly without negative effect. Items like your favorite drink, your soap, or, yes, your contact lenses, can create allergies. In the case of contacts, the first element you'll feel is mild irritation. If not treated quickly, this irritable condition can develop into redness, swelling and even discharge may begin to occur. Some people also describe feeling a "heaviness" in their eyelids. So what is really going on? Well, like the rest of our body, our eyes are quite smart when it comes to dealing with foreign substances. When the eye senses a foreign substance or object it triggers a specific response: inflammation. This is your eyes way of trying to force out and/or contain the irritant.

Read this great excerpt from WoodhamsEye.com that talks specifically about how your eyes may be responding to contact lenses that have become irritating:

[su_quote]As your eye responds to the contact lens, inflammation causes the tissue to buckle and form small bumps called papillae. The bumps are visible when a doctor inverts the eyelid to have a look. According to Medscape, when these bumps continue to enlarge—and they can get as big as a millimeter each—the condition becomes “giant” papillary conjunctivitis, or GPC. Before diagnosing an allergy to contacts, your doctor may rule out other factors, notes the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Are you reacting to pollen or dust, perhaps? Have the materials of your lenses deteriorated over time? Even improper fit can create an allergy-like response, so your doctor might test the tightness of your lenses. GPC isn’t difficult to diagnose though, since it is so common and observable. In fact, the condition is so widespread that Medscape notes that doctors are advised to initially treat every contact lens wearer as potentially having GPC. But do not confuse “common” with “normal.” GPC needs to be addressed before it has a chance to progress, so be sure to ask about it at your next checkup. If you’re already experiencing symptoms, make an appointment today (courtesy: Woodhamseye.com).[/su_quote]

In a nutshell, contact lenses can actually be recognized as "intruders" in your eye. So, the same issues that come along with a foreign body in the eye can be part and parcel with contacts. Yet there is hope here...there are new contact options with a less-irritating nature that can reduce or eliminate this issue. See "Some Solutions" below.

Of course, while suffering from an "allergy-like" eye condition, you may not have an allergy at all. Rather, irritation in your eyes may be due to your contact lenses wearing out (material getting thinner or frayed), dust or pollen getting in your eyes, or you might even have an improper contact lens fit. Here again, see your doctor.  

Some Solutions to Contact Lens Irritation or Allergies

Sometimes a wearer of contacts that has had no issue may suddenly start "having an issue" after switching to a new type. This is often seen when the wearer switches from wearing standard soft (hydrogel) contact lenses to a silicone hydrogel version. Here again, this is one thread to work through with your eye care professional. However, the primary element to be aware of ahead of time is that this issue is most likely caused by the surface and chemical characteristics of the lens material in the silicone hydrogel version. Studies have shown that this type of contact lens may actually attract deposits onto the lens more readily than their counterpart (leading to my next point).

As referenced above, there is research out there showing that the allergic symptoms the contact wearer is suffering from is not from the contact(s) itself, but rather due to the accumulation of substances on the surface of the lenses. The solution that is frequently tried here is to switch over to daily disposable contact lenses, thus getting rid of the chance for substance build-up. Many folks have seen great relief by going this route.  

8 Tips for Eye Allergy Sufferers

Contacts or not, there are some great ways to avoid and/or reduce the causes and exposures that are the most frequent cause of eye allergy discomfort. Courtesy of a great article on allaboutvision.com, I found this very help list of tips that can help you both identify and/or alleviate these pesky symptoms. Here again, meeting with you eye health care provider is key (see tip #1!), but the rest of this list is a nice, additional start towards recognizing what you can do on your own to begin attacking this issue.

  • Get an early start. See your eye doctor before allergy season begins to learn how to reduce your sensitivity to allergens.
  • Try to avoid or limit your exposure to the primary causes of your eye allergies. In the spring and summer, pollen from trees and grasses are the usual suspects. Ragweed pollen is the biggest culprit in late summer and fall. Mold, dust mites and pet dander are common indoor allergens during winter.
  • Protect your eyes from airborne allergens outdoors by wearing wraparound-style sunglasses.
  • Don't rub your eyes if they itch! Eye rubbing releases more histamine and makes your allergy symptoms worse.
  • Use plenty of artificial tears to wash airborne allergens from your eyes. Ask your eye doctor which brands are best for you.
  • Cut down your contact lens wear or switch to daily disposable lenses to reduce the build-up of allergens on your lenses.
  • Shower before bedtime and gently clean your eyelids to remove any pollen that could cause irritation while you sleep.
  • Consider purchasing an air purifier for your home, and purchase an allergen-trapping filter for your heating/cooling system.
  • Also, to check your risk of exposure to airborne allergens outdoors, take a look at today's pollen count map.
  •   Good luck out there this allergy season and beyond!

    Header Image Courtesy: AllAboutVision.com