Itchy Eyes: Allergies are Crying Out for Attention

Child with cucumbers on her eyes to ease itchy eyes. Itchy eyes often distract kids and decrease their ability to learn new material. If this weren’t bad enough, they can cause kids to sleep less well. For some kids, the difference in sleep can make them moody and hungry. Hangry is not what any parent, teacher or child wants.

Why Do Kids Get Itchy Eyes?

The human body is armed with an amazing immune system that includes an array of protection devices. The respiratory system tightens up when foreign particles are introduced. The nose secretes a flow of mucus to wash out potentially harmful agents. The eyes water and release histamines in an effort to protect against harmful particles landing on the surface of the eyes.

Typically, when a child has itchy eyes, it’s an allergic reaction (an overreaction) to pollen, dust mites or animal dander. Sorting out what started the reaction can help you move toward eliminating or reducing the trigger in the future.

This might mean using HEPA air filters in the home and keeping car and home windows shut during peak pollen seasons. For those with dust might allergies, this might mean adopting a dust prevention strategy. Or avoiding being indoors with Aunt Jennifer’s cat.

Note: It’s great for kids to play outdoors, but during pollen season, this can trigger allergies including itchy eyes.

  • If practical have kids shed their outer layer of clothing before coming inside.
  • A shower after playing outdoors is wise. Be sure to rinse the hair and face well.
  • Even if a child hasn’t spent much time outdoors, a shower before bed can help reduce overnight exposure thus the total amount of time a child is exposed to pollen.

But it’s not always practical to avoid the offending agent.

When You Can’t Avoid Triggers, How Can You Treat Itchy Eyes?

When trigger particles land on the surface of the eye, mast cells in the outer layer activate and release histamine and other signal molecules. These dilate the blood vessels in the surface of the eye, make the blood vessels leakier, and produce itching, swelling, and/or a watery discharge.

  • The first thing to do is NOT rub the eye. The itching is a signal to get away from the particles if possible, and to take action to flush the particles away – but rubbing the eyes can mechanically trigger more histamine release from the mast cells and make the itchy eyes worse.
  • The second thing to do is to help the watery discharge wash away the offending pollen, mites, or dander, etc. Saline eye drops (artificial tears) help to flush the eyes. (Saline drops are not the same as the eye drops that are advertised to “get the red out.”). They can be used several times a day to dilute and remove allergens. Note: these particles can also stick to contact lenses. Best not to use contact lenses with itchy eyes.
  • Cool compresses can be very soothing and help reduce itching and swelling of the eyelids or around the eyes.
  • Over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines and/or mast cell stabilizer medications are sometimes appropriate.
  • I prefer prevention and the gentlest methods for additional treatment, such as compresses boosted with herbs and other plants including
  • Cucumber to soothe puffy skin and cool burning sensations
  • Chamomile to alleviate discomfort and inflammation
  • Eyebright (Euphrasia) to help calm allergies

Photo credit: Parinya Agsararattananont

Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.

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