The old saying: “The eyes are the window to the soul” could also be altered to include a window to the body as well. This marvelous organ is one of the most delicate and precise instruments that has ever been created, and no camera or man-made piece of visual equipment could ever begin to compare with the human eye. The wonders of vision are well documented, but what is not so well known is that the eye acts as major filter for the body as well, which is why it is so liable to irritation at times. Itchy eyes are common because many allergens in the environment will attempt to enter the eye, and thy eyes are on the front line of defense. While most cases of itchy eyes are due to allergies, there are other causes as well. Let’s see what we can find out�
To better understand the occurrence of itchy eyes, which is a very common complaint, especially for folks with certain types of allergies, it might be helpful to have a basic understanding of the structure of the outer eye.
The outermost barrier of the eye is called the conjunctiva, and it is a mucous membrane that covers the outside of the eyeball and extends under the eye lids as well. It is the first part of the eye that is touched by airborne contaminants and allergens that are attempting to enter the eye. The conjunctiva is the gatekeeper, so to speak, and its job is an important one. In order to perform as it must, the conjunctiva is very dense with tiny blood vessels, and thus if an allergen enters the conjunctiva, the immune system can respond quickly to the invader. This is one reason why itchy, watery eyes are such a common sign of an allergic reaction. The conjunctiva is also very rich in mast cells, which are specialized cells that are critical to the function of inflammation, a result of immune system reaction. So while itchy eyes can be a nuisance, they are actually an indicator that the immune system is up to par and on the job. The problem with allergies, though, is that they often over stimulate the immune system, and the result is an autoimmune reaction that causes the immune system to malfunction and not cease its responses after the initial crisis is over. This can cause the immune system to work over time, and inadvertently attack healthy tissues because it mistakes them for invaders. Allergies are only one form of autoimmune diseases that are becoming more and more common in modern times, due mainly to the deterioration of the environment, and poor lifestyle and dietary choices that so many people fall into these days. Approximately 70 million Americans suffer from some form of allergy, and almost fifty percent of those have eye allergies that produce itchy eyes and other symptoms.
The next layer of the outer eye, behind the conjunctiva, contains the tear ducts, which are also involved in protecting the body from irritants and infection. Tears are a highly specialized substance composed of white blood cells, antibodies, and enzymes, all of which are employed by the immune system. This part of the eye is also rich in blood vessels, but not quite as rich as the conjunctiva.
Finally, we have the cornea, which is a protective sheath directly in front of the lens of the eye. It is primarily a physical barrier that has very little connection with immune function, and virtually no blood vessels.
So, the reason that itchy eyes are so common is that the conjunctiva takes most of the blows when it comes to preventing intruders from entering the body via the eyes, and one of the typical consequences of that is itchy eyes.
Are There Other Common Causes for Itchy Eyes, Besides Allergies?
Yes there are. While the most common cause of itchy eyes is allergies such as hay fever, pollen, environmental toxins, and other airborne contaminants, some additional causes include:
Actually, conjunctivitis is often a form of eye allergy, when it appears in the form of allergic conjunctivitis. Along with itchy eyes, common symptoms of conjunctivitis include:
- Red, bloodshot eyes
- Watery runny eyes, due to excessive tearing
- Swollen eye lids
- Burning eyes
The most common causes of conjunctivitis include:
- Animal dander
- Dust mites
- Chemical residues in the air
Conjunctivitis is often worse during certain seasons, depending on which particular allergens a person is most sensitive to. Pollen is usually a big offender for many people, and the peak of pollen season changes depending on your locale, but in the Northern Hemisphere, the pollen season is usually at its worst in the spring.
When pollen or other agents come into contact with the conjunctiva, the mast cells are stimulated to produce histamine and other immune system mediators. This is what causes the inflammation, and results in the symptoms. In severe cases of conjunctivitis, the eye lids may swell, sometimes to the point that they cannot even open. Another phenomenon resembles a “hive” on the eye. This occurs when the conjunctiva itself swells and actually protrudes from the eyeball.
Conjunctivitis can also be caused by bacterial or viral agents. The mucous membranes of the eyes can be very susceptible to such infections, especially if you have a weak or compromised immune system.
There are many medications that are prescribed for conjunctivitis. The first line of defense is often an antihistamine given as an antidote to the increased levels of histamine. Sometimes stronger anti-inflammatory drugs such as corticosteroids are also suggested, but many of these medications have significant side effects that you should be familiar with before using them. The best way to deal with conjunctivitis, infections, and other allergic reactions is to develop a healthy lifestyle that boosts the immune system so that it will not malfunction and cause allergies. That deals with the cause of disease, rather than just addressing the symptoms. In essence it is a long-term answer that is similar to the parable about the benefits of teaching a man to fish rather than simply feeding him a fish dinner. The answer to overall health is not the use of dangerous medications, but the pursuit of wellness that will breed health and not disease.
Many folks also find that a cool compress applied to the eyes can be very soothing. You may use water alone, or mix in some vinegar to additionally help relieve the itching and burning of conjunctivitis.
Sick Building Syndrome
As the price of energy continues to sky rocket, man attempts to build structures that are increasingly “energy efficient.” That in itself is a good thing, but the problem is that when we seal our homes and other buildings too tightly, they become depositories of all kinds of indoor air pollution, and can cause their inhabitants to develop allergic reactions and other manifestations of illnesses. Building materials contain many toxins that are trapped inside our buildings, and it is these pollutants and many others that can be noxious to us. One of the common symptoms of sick building syndrome is itchy eyes, which again is a sign that the indoor environment is triggering an allergic reaction. It is important that we eliminate as many toxins as we can from our indoor environment. Be careful what you allow in your home. Many cleaning and personal care products contain dangerously toxic chemicals that can turn our homes into a hazardous waste site. In addition to staying well through a healthful lifestyle, be sure you allow some fresh air into your home from time to time, even in the winter. Your wellness is worth a few extra bucks on the monthly heating bill, and fresh air will help to purify and recycle the stale, polluted air inside your home. In addition, you may want to invest in an air purifier to further improve the quality of the air in your home. There are many excellent models on the market. Just be sure you don’t use an older type that heavily depends on the use of ozone to purify the air. Too much ozone can be harmful, and some folks find it irritating as well, possibly leading to headaches and other symptoms.
Obstructed Tear Duct
This non-allergic condition is commonly accompanied by itchy, watery eyes, and is sometimes mistaken for conjunctivitis. It occurs when the passage that extends from the tear ducts to the nasal cavity is partially or completely blocked. This can be the result of infection or caused by intrusion by other tissues that obstructs the tear duct. Wateriness of the eyes is the most common symptom, but some folks experience itchiness as well.
Dry Eye Syndrome
This is a common source of itchy eyes that affects approximately 10 million Americans. It is usually the result of poor tear quality, and while there are many medications such as tear replacements and others that are prescribed, changes in your diet can significantly impact dry eye syndrome for many people. The one nutrient that has a great impact on the quality of your tears is the fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6. These act as natural lubricants, and one of their many purposes is to provide necessary oils that make the tears function properly. Good dietary sources of these essential fatty acids (EFAs) include walnuts, almonds, flaxseed, and cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel.
While itchy eyes may not seem like the worst thing that can happen to a person medically, they are an important symptom simply because they are an indicator of the overall wellness of your system. Chronic itchy eyes and other signs that are often associated with allergic reactions are a type of red flag that is a signal that something is wrong in the way your body is responding. Chronic itchy eyes can alert a person who is aware enough to connect the dots that he must make some adjustments to avoid further illness. In a sense, itchy eyes are akin to the immune system crying out for help. And how key this is. If we ignore the immune system’s pleas, worse illness is sure to come. However, if we listen to our body, we can take steps to bolster our system and choose to go in the direction of health and wellness instead of greater sickness and disease.