How to relieve itchy eyes in the summer

We all know the importance of wearing sunscreen and protecting our skin from the sun in the summer, but did you know your eyes also need looking after as well? It's not just the sun you need to protect them from - there's a whole range of eye problems you might need to navigate in the summer, including itchy eyes.

The sun, pollen and even going swimming can lead to red, irritated, and itchy eyes in summer. Max Halford, clinical lead at the Association of British Dispensing Opticians, and Lavnish Joshi, consultant ophthalmologist at The Lister Hospital, tell us more on how to look after your eyes in summer.

Why are my eyes itchy?

Both Joshi and Halford explain that the most common eye problem experienced during the summer is 'allergic conjunctivitis', which causes itchy eyes

"Summer is the traditional time for seasonal allergies and the time some people start having swollen, irritated, red, and itchy eyes. The main symptoms can be grouped together under the title allergic conjunctivitis," Halford says.

"Causes are sometimes difficult to pin down but pollen, particularly some grass and tree pollens, dust mites and other outdoor allergens are the usual culprits."

Allergic conjunctivitis is different from bacterial conjunctivitis, which is caused when the eye comes into contact with bacteria. Both have similar symptoms, but if the infection is bacterial you may also experience a yellow/green coloured discharge that can cause a crust around the eye. Allergic conjunctivitis is also more likely to lead to itchy eyes.

Joshi adds that people who suffer with dry eyes may find their symptoms worsen in the heat, or when an room has air-conditioning.

How to stop itchy eyes

Your eyes need care all year around but allergic reactions to environmental factors like pollen can give you itchy eyes, so they may need a little extra TLC in the summer.

"Avoiding the allergens is always a good starting point but sometimes difficult advice to follow. Certainly if its grass pollen that triggers your allergies then avoiding a newly mown lawn is to be recommended," Halford says.

"Well-fitting sunglasses with a CE mark to show they are protective against UV rays are a good idea, as they can also help be a barrier to irritants.

"Care must also be taken to protect our eyes from the harmful effects of sunlight, in particular UV rays, which can have a long-term damaging effect on the retina at the back of our eyes."

How can the sun damage your eyes?

Speaking of sun, did you know the UV rays emitted by the sun can damage your eyes just as much as your skin?

Too much UV exposure can lead to eye diseases such a macular degeneration, a common condition that affects the middle part of your vision, and also cataracts, resulting in the lens of the eye becoming cloudy. Similarly, computer screens emit blue light, which is similar to UV and can also damage your eyes over long periods of exposure.

"Too much exposure to UV light can increase the risk of certain eye conditions over time, such as cataract (clouding of the lens), pterygium (growth on the eye) and possibly age-related macular degeneration," Joshi adds.

"Looking directly at the sun, especially during an eclipse, can damage the eye's retina and can cause blindness."

Each of these conditions can impact your vision, so it's extremely important you protect your eyes with sunglasses, which should help prevent itchy eyes by blocking potential irritants anyway. Joshi suggests you look for sunglasses with UV400 protection.

How to relieve itchy eyes

Joshi adds that while allergic conjunctivitis cannot be prevented, itchy eyes can be managed. That includes taking steps to ensure pollen and other irritants stay out of your eyes.

"Allergic conjunctivitis symptoms can be managed using anti-allergy drops and even the same tablets used to manage hay fever," he says.

"When spending long periods of time outside, I would advise that you shower and change clothes as soon as you get home to wash any pollen off. If you're at home, try to keep the windows and doors closed and steam or clean your face a few times throughout the day.

"You may also want to try putting some Vaseline around your nostrils to trap pollen, or wearing wraparound sunglasses to stop the pollen from getting into your eyes. If your eyes are particularly sore and itchy, after a shower you could try soothing them with a cool damp cloth or some cucumber slices."

Halford adds that eye drops may help relieve irritated eyes for some people.

"Ocular lubricant 'dry eye drops' are readily available and your local optician will be able to advise on the best product for you. Try to look for 'non-preserved' drops as they are less likely to cause any irritation," he explains.

"Your local pharmacy will be able to recommend whether topical or systemic antihistamines would be helpful."

Can swimming cause itchy eyes?

What about looking after your eyes when you're swimming - after all who doesn't like a dip in a cool pool on a hot day?

If you're a contact lens wearer, you need to remember they don't mix well with swimming.

"Always remember that contact lenses and water do not mix. Contact lenses should be removed before swimming as there is a risk of serous eye infections from contaminated water," Halford says.

"Well-fitting goggles work well and are available in a range of prescriptions should that be required."

Joshi adds that good eye hygiene is important for avoiding eye infections when swimming - both bacterial and allergic conjunctivitis.

"It is also best to avoid touching or rubbing your eyes especially when outside and if you haven't washed your hands," he says. This may be a reason for itchy eyes.

"When using communal areas, such as swimming pools, maintaining good hand hygiene reduces the risk of acquiring infective conjunctivitis. Wearing goggles while in swimming pools can help to protect your eyes from being irritated by chlorine and reduce exposure to infectious agents."

Visit your optician for further advice

If you do find that you have especially itchy eyes in summer, or perhaps you just need some medical advice on how to protect them, Halford suggests a trip to your local opticians.

"They will be able to identify any concerns and offer appropriate advice and guidance to help," he explains. "Dispensing opticians are there to ensure your glasses and sunglasses are offering you the best protection and are fitting well and they can advise on a range of eye protection all year round."

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