If you’re anything like me (and a good chunk of the rest of the population) certain times of year you are plagued with itchy eyes and for an unfortunate few of you itchy eyes might bother you every. single. day. I love springtime but usually for me spring = itchy eyes. Itchy eyes are not only inconvenient but a condition called keratoconus has actually been linked to individuals who rub their eyes a lot, yikes! So in light of spring being just around the corner (and the itchy eyes that can come with it) here are my top 5 over the counter tips for battling itchy eyes.
1. Minimize Any Allergen Exposure
For many people itchy eyes are a symptom of eye allergies. Allergies can be caused by a number of things; pet dander, pollen from trees and grass, mold, dust, make-up, fragrances, detergents, eyelash extensions and foods just to name a few. If you are able to identify what triggers your allergies and can limit your exposure to these things it will take you a long way in preventing itchy eyes in the first place.
Getting allergy tested is the most sure-fire way to figure out what you’re allergic to but you can also keep a log of your symptoms and possible triggers to try and sort out what is causing the problems. I also personally have the webmd Allergy app that lets me know the rates of mold, dust, tree, grass or ragweed in my city. I especially like this app for travelling as it can give me an idea of what I’m about to be exposed to.
2. Take An Oral Allergy Medication
So you found out what you’re allergic to but can’t or won’t limit your exposure (hello other dog lovers who are also allergic to dogs). Well in this case I recommend an over the counter allergy medication. Obviously check with your primary care before taking any new medications. These can be good for keeping general allergy symptoms at bay (I’m talking to you runny rose, scratchy throat) and can help some with your eyes as well. One issue is that they can cause some secondary eye dryness so that’s something to watch out for. I personally like Xyzal as it seems to work the best for me without making me drowsy but I’ve also used Claritin, Zyrtec and Allegra in the past. If I’m ever really itchy and can not stop rubbing my eyes I’ll take a Bendaryl but usually at night because holy moly it makes me sleepy.
3. Cold Compress
I personally like to do a cold pack on closed eyes for about 5-10 minutes 2-3 times per day when my eyes are particularly itchy. I know what you’re thinking “I could have thought of that! This eye doctor is so obvious”, but do you know part of why it helps? When you’re eyes/eyelids itch something called histamine is released into your blood (hince why allergy meds are often anti-histamines). This is what makes you itchy in the first place and when you rub your eyes you cause excess swelling and tissue irritation and MORE histamine to be released; by using a cold pack you can constrict the blood vessels therefore reducing the amount of histamine getting to those delicate tissues and hopefully also reducing some swelling caused by any rubbing.
A fun alternative on cold packs is keeping artificial tears in the fridge. Some of my favorite over the counter brands for artificial tears are refresh, systane and blink – preservative free options are always a good idea so you don’t have any irritation from any preservatives. I recommend to my patients 1 drop up to 4-6 times per day.
4. Give Your Contacts A Break
Sometimes you can actually be allergic to the material your contacts are made of but often times it’s your eyelid rubbing across the edge of the contact each time your blink that is making the itching worse. Anytime I have patients with severe itchiness who are also contact lens wearers I always check the underside of their eyelids where they can get these bumps (think sort of like hives) that are typically made worse from the contacts. Realistically a break from contacts and sometimes prescribed medication has to happen for the bumps to go away.
5. Keep Your Eyelids Clean
So I keep talking about allergies, allergies, allergies but allergies are not the only reason for itchy eyes. Something called demodex can also cause itching. Demodex are essentially little mites that live in our eyelid follicles and at night they emerge and procreate (it makes me itchy just thinking about it). Essentially everyone is colonized with these little stinkers and if you have rosacea you could have 18x the normal amount (but that’s a topic for a different post). When they die and or defecate (fancy word for poop) they cause irritation, redness and you guessed it – itching! My favorite way to get rid of these guys is using something called Cliradex it comes in towelette or foam options to clean your eyelids. I do warn patients that the first time or two there is a bit of a “menthol” or “wasabi” effect – aka it stings just a bit at first but that goes away. Another option is Ocusoft towelettes or foam an final option is baby shampoo but it is definitely not my favorite option. Some individuals need medicated ointment in addition to cleaning to reduce the demodex on their eyelids. Finally, demodex aren’t the only little critters that can cause itching so if in doubt go have your local eye doctor check your eyelids out.
Final Tip: use an over the counter allergy eye drop!
Okay, so really it’s 6 secrets but hey, eye doctors only ever have to count to 2 (just kidding, that’s some optometry humor for you). My favorite over the counter allergy eye drops are Zaditor and Alaway. Both of these are typically 1 drop twice a day. They typically work best if you use them consistently. I tell my patients to start using them a week or two before their allergy season starts or before they’ll be exposed to something particularly itch inducing. One of the doctors I work with uses them every day because of his allergies.
One last thing, when in doubt always go visit your eye doctor (really you should be getting eye exams every year anyway). Your eye doctor will have a better idea of what specifically is going on with your eyes and can prescribe you allergy drops or other medications that are not over the counter.