Allergies are one of the most common medical conditions in children. Seasonal allergies (or hay fever) affect more than 7% of children in the United States. If your child has itchy, red, or watery eyes, your child may have allergies.
Eye allergies in children are often caused by environmental allergens, such as pollen or mold. Children often rub their eyes when they are uncomfortable, which exacerbates allergy symptoms.
Learn more about eye allergies in children, including causes, symptoms and treatments.
What are the causes of eye allergies?
Eye allergies (allergic conjunctivitis) occur when allergens enter the eye. Common allergens are pollen, mold, dust and pet dander. Children who have hay fever (allergic rhinitis) may experience itchy, watery eyes, and red eyes.
When allergens enter the eyes, the body releases chemicals, including histamines, that trigger inflammation. The response will lead to redness and inflammation of the area around the eye.
The irritation mainly occurs in the tissue that surrounds the eyeball and forms the inside of the eyelids (the conjunctiva). A child’s eyes may also watery when trying to remove allergens.
Swollen eyes: allergy or conjunctivitis?
If your child has red, swollen eyes, you may wonder if they have allergies or conjunctivitis, an infection of the conjunctiva, also called pink eye. There are a few differences between the conditions that can help you determine which is causing your child’s symptoms.
- Usually allergies affect both eyes at the same time.
- A child with allergies will often have other symptoms like sneezing or a stuffy nose.
Conjunctivitis and irritants
- Exposure to environmental irritants (dirt, smoke, or chemicals) and conjunctivitis usually begins in one eye.
- An allergic child usually does not have a discharge from the eye and does not have a fever, but these symptoms often occur with an infection such as conjunctivitis.
Symptoms of eye allergies
Young children may not be able to tell you about their symptoms, but their behavior may suggest that they are having an allergic reaction. For example, they will rub their eyes or cry.
Even if your child can’t tell you what’s wrong, many eye allergy symptoms are easy to spot.
Common symptoms of eye allergies in children include:
- Redness around the eye and in the eyeball
- Itching or burning that may cause the child to rub their eyes
- swollen eyelids
Diagnosis and treatment of eye allergies in children
If your child has never had eye allergies before, talk to their pediatrician about their symptoms. Eye allergies are diagnosed based on your child’s symptoms. Allergy testing is rarely necessary.
Once eye allergies are diagnosed, your child’s doctor will recommend management. Follow-up care will only be necessary if treatment does not work.
In most cases, eye allergies are treated with over-the-counter (OTC) medications and lifestyle adjustments to limit exposure to allergens.
For severe allergies, your child’s doctor may recommend prescription medication or an allergy shot.
Treat and prevent eye allergies in children at home
The best way to control eye allergy symptoms in children is prevention. If your child has a history of eye allergies, start giving them over-the-counter allergy medicine daily before the start of the season when their allergies usually occur (often in the spring).
When taken daily, medicines like Claritin (loratadine) and Zyrtec (cetirizine) can ward off symptoms of hay fever and eye allergies.
If your child has breakthrough symptoms (symptoms that appear while taking medicine), there are other things you can try.
Other ways to help prevent eye allergies and treat flare-up symptoms include:
- Wash your child’s face with a cold washcloth and rinse their eyes (leave the washcloth over their eyes if your child prefers)
- Using a short-acting allergy medicine, such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine)
- For children 3 years of age and older, using antihistamine eye drops like Zaditor (ketotifen) once a day
To prevent eye allergies in children, minimize their exposure to allergens. Here are some ways to reduce exposure to allergy triggers:
- Use an air filter and vacuum frequently
- During allergy season, encourage children to wear hats and sunglasses to protect their eyes
- Wash your child’s hands frequently (especially during allergy season) and remind them not to touch their eyes.
- Close windows and reduce time spent outdoors during the pollen season
- Change your child for glasses rather than contacts to minimize irritation
- Wash your child’s hair every night to remove allergens
When to seek professional help
In most cases, eye allergies are irritating but harmless. However, there are some situations when you should talk to your child’s doctor, including:
- Your child still has itchy eyes after two days of treatment.
- Your child has discharge from one or both eyes (other than clear tears).
- Your child has a fever.
- Your child’s eyes are almost closed.
Eye allergies are common in children. Itchy, watery eyes and red eyes can be a sign of exposure to allergens, environmental irritants, or infections like conjunctivitis. If you are not sure what is causing your child’s eye symptoms, talk to a doctor.
Usually, your child’s doctor can diagnose eye allergies only based on their symptoms. They can provide you with treatment recommendations. Most of the time, over-the-counter medications and lifestyle adjustments are enough to manage your child’s allergies. If the symptoms are severe, your doctor may suggest a prescription medication.
A word from Verywell
Eye allergies can be uncomfortable for everyone, including children. The best way to help your child stay comfortable during allergy season is to get ahead of their symptoms by giving them over-the-counter allergy medicine daily and taking steps to limit exposure to allergies. allergies (such as washing your face and hands every day).
If the symptoms do not go away or if other signs appear, a visit to the pediatrician is necessary in order to identify the cause of the eye irritation and to provide relief for your child.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I tell the difference between eye allergies and conjunctivitis in my child?
Eye allergies usually do not produce the pus and scabs that are the main symptoms of conjunctivitis (conjunctivitis). Eye allergies usually affect both eyes at the same time, while conjunctivitis often starts in one eye before moving on to the other.
If your child has allergies, symptoms such as sneezing, coughing, or congestion may also be present.
If in doubt, contact your child’s doctor. While allergies can usually be managed at home, conjunctivitis is very contagious and should be treated by a healthcare professional.
How long do eye allergy symptoms in children last?
Symptoms of eye allergies last as long as your child’s eyes are exposed to the allergens. For pollen allergies (hay fever), it can take four to eight weeks. During the pollen season, it may be helpful to treat your child with allergy medication daily to help minimize their symptoms.
How Can I Prevent My Allergic Child With Itchy Eyes?
Applying a cool washcloth to your child’s eyes and rinsing their eyes with a small amount of water can help reduce irritation and itching.
If your child has a history of allergies, the best way to anticipate their symptoms is through prevention. This may include giving them daily over-the-counter allergy medications and taking steps to reduce allergen exposure at home and when they are outdoors.