No one needs to tell you it’s spring when you have allergies—the sneezing, sniffling, and stuffiness will clue you into it. Not only do allergens leave your nose congested and your throat scratchy, but they also do a number on your eyeballs. Besides planning ahead of allergy season by taking some OTC meds, you may also want to stock up on the best eye drops for allergy.
That's one of the wisest investments you can make before the discomfort sets in because the eyes are one of the most visible sites for inflammation due to allergy, says Clifford Bassett, MD, an allergist and clinical associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Health. “Ocular allergy occurs when the tissue that lines the inside of the eyelids, called the conjunctiva, gets inflamed and eyes become itchy, red, and watery,” he explains.
The conjunctiva contains a large number of mast cells that are involved in the immune system’s response to triggers in the environment, says Dr. Bassett. When you’re outside and pollens deposit in your eyes, the mast cells release something called histamine. “Histamines causes blood vessels to dilate and produce itching and redness,” notes Punita Pondra, MD, the associate division chief of allergy and immunology at Northwell Health.
And your stuffed, congested nose? That messes with your eyes too. Breathing in pollens brings about a similar process of histamine release and dilation of blood vessels occurs in the nose, resulting in congestion, per Dr. Pondra. Since the eyes drain through the nose (kind of gross, I know), if the nose is congested, what your eyes encounter in the environment can’t be drained away. “From direct contact with the allergen to the eye and from the fact that the eye can’t clear the allergens because the nose is blocked, you have itching and tearing and redness in the eyes,” she says.
The whole grin-and-bear-it attitude doesn’t quite work when your eyes feel like they’re on fire. Luckily, a good eye drop can help them get back to feeling normal. Here are the best ones you can buy online based on guidelines from eye experts, as well as the pros and cons for each.
There are a few different types that might work for you (and some drops fall into multiple categories).
- Antihistamine eye drops: Both OTC and/or prescription, these medicated eye drops block the receptors that recognize histamine, says Dr. Pondra. They have anti-inflammatory effects that can help reduce symptoms.
- Mast cell stabilizers: Mast cells are a type of cell that causes allergic reactions, according to the American Academy of Asthma and Immunology (AAAI). These types of drops (e.g., lodoxamine, cromolyn, nedocromil) can prevent the release of histamines because they stabilize their membranes. Mast cell stabilizers are available OTC and in prescription form.
- Decongestant eye drops: These are basic eye drops designed to tone down redness. They contain a decongestant (e.g., naphazoline) that constricts blood vessels in the eyes, which in turn, makes them appear less red, according to Berkeley Wellness.
- Artificial tears: These do exactly what you'd expect—moisten your peepers. “Something as simple as artificial tears lubricate the eye surface and improve overall comfort,” says Dr. Syed. Artificial tears can also help wash out any gunk that may be on the surface of your eye and bothering you, points out Jacqueline G. Davis, OD, a professor of clinical optometry at The Ohio State University College of Optometry.
- Topical antihistamines: For some people, artificial tears are enough; for others, a topical antihistamine may be needed to deal with your body’s allergic response, says Shibayama. If your allergies are out of control, OTC eye drops with the antihistamine ketotifen can help tamp down on the itchiness and redness.
If you’re not sure what’s going on with your red eyes, it’s always a good idea to see an eye doctor, says Mina Massaro-Giordano, MD, the co-director of the Penn Dry Eye and Ocular Surface Center and a professor of clinical ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania. But, if you’re pretty sure allergies are the culrpit, try an OTC eye drop that falls into one of the above categories.