Learn about the risks of hay fever to your overall eye health
14 May 2019
What is hay fever?
Spring is well and truly upon us and, while it’s lovely to have the blossoms out, the birds chirping away, and the lighter, brighter mornings, the allergies that come with the season aren’t quite as popular. Around 13 million people in the UK suffer from hay fever, which is essentially an allergy to pollen. Pollen is released into the air by plants and trees and, as the weather gets warmer and the flowers bloom, it becomes a particular problem around this time of year.
Typical symptoms experienced by hay fever sufferers include sneezing, a runny or blocked nose, and red, watery, itchy eyes. Watery eyes occur as your body tries to flush out the allergens in the pollen, and the redness is a sign of inflammation. In serious cases, people’s eyelids can also swell up as the airborne pollen particles make contact with their eyes. The overall effect is very itchy and uncomfortable, pushing people towards antihistamines and steroid sprays to reduce the whole reaction. These sometimes aren’t powerful enough though, so your GP can prescribe antihistamine eye drops to help with the more severe eye symptoms.
Risks of rubbing your eyes
Rubbing your eyes is a natural reflex to remove dust, encourage tear flow, and lubricate dry eyes. When you’re suffering from hay fever, rubbing your eyes might provide temporary relief but, in the long-run, it’s doing more damage than good. For starters, your fingers carry plenty of bacteria which you’re then putting into direct contact with your eyes. This can cause infections like conjunctivitis, bringing on swollen eyes, redness, and crusting around the eyes. Rubbing your eyes aggressively also can break blood vessels, resulting in bloodshot eyes and dark circles.
More serious risks can result in permanent damage to your sight. For example, if you already have grit or dust in your eye and rub it trying to relieve the discomfort – a completely natural response – you might scratch your cornea which can be painful and takes several days to heal. You should rinse your eye and keep blinking, but avoid wearing contact lenses or rubbing your eye further. Rubbing your eyes excessively also can cause your eye pressure to increase, which is particularly bad if you have glaucoma or suffer with your eye pressure already.
One of the most damaging things that can happen as a result of rubbing your eyes too much is the development of Keratoconus. This is a condition whereby the cornea begins to weaken and push forward, forming more of a conical shape, and affects around 1 in 2,000 people. It can lead to blurry vision, short-sightedness, astigmatism and light sensitivity. Keratoconus gets progressively worse from a person’s late teens until their late 30s, when the cornea becomes stiffer with age and stabilises. It can be treated with rigid contact lenses and a treatment available at Optimax called Corneal-Cross Linking. Corneal-Crossing Linking works to strengthen the corneal fibres and prevent further deformation of the cornea, but sometimes it is too late to save the person’s vision entirely.
Although Keratoconus is sometimes hereditary, one environmental factor suspected to cause it is the vigorous rubbing of eyes – usually due to allergies. Unfortunately, once Keratoconus has developed, you are no longer suitable for laser eye surgery, due to uneven thinning of the cornea. This is one of the more severe side effects of rubbing your eyes and goes to show that something you did as a child or young adult could affect your eyesight later in life.
What are the solutions?
The next couple of months are likely to be uncomfortable for sufferers of hay fever while pollen particles remain very much present. Try to wear sunglasses when outside as this will prevent pollen from getting into your eyes so easily. We also recommend carrying lubricating eye drops or artificial tears to help flush out irritants and keep your eyes moist. Antihistamine eye drops are probably the best thing you can have to help relieve your eyes during hay fever season but the key thing to remember, above all, is to try not to rub your eyes too much!
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