An Overview of Eye Allergies in Kids

Preventing eye allergies in kids can make the whole family feel better

Allergies are one of the most common medical conditions in kids. 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 might have allergies.

Eye allergies in kids are often caused by environmental allergens, like pollen or mold. Kids often rub their eyes when they’re uncomfortable, which exacerbates allergy symptoms.

Read more about eye allergies in kids, including causes, symptoms, and treatments.

A young brunette girl holding a dandelion and rubbing her eyes.

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What Causes Eye Allergies?

Eye allergies (allergic conjunctivitis) occur when allergens get into the eye. Common allergens are pollen, mold, dust, and pet dander. Kids who have hay fever (allergic rhinitis) may experience itchy, watery, and red eyes.

When allergens get into the eyes, the body releases chemicals, including histamines, that trigger inflammation. The response will cause the area around the eye to become red and inflamed.

The irritation mostly occurs in the tissue that surrounds the eyeball and forms the inside of the eyelids (the conjunctiva). A child's eyes might also water as they try to flush out the allergens. 

Puffy Eyes: Allergies or Conjunctivitis?

If your child has puffy, red eyes you may wonder if they have allergies or conjunctivitis, an infection of the conjunctiva, also called pink eye. There are a couple of differences between the conditions that can help you figure out which one is causing your child's symptoms.

Allergies

  • Generally, 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 start in one eye.
  • A child that has allergies usually does not have discharge from their eyes and they do not have a fever, but these symptoms often occur with an infection like 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 experiencing an allergic reaction. For example, they will rub their eyes or cry.

Even if your child cannot tell you what is wrong, many of the symptoms of eye allergies are easy to spot.

Common symptoms of eye allergies in kids include:

  • Redness around the eye and in the eyeball
  • Itchiness or burning that may cause the child to rub their eyes
  • Watery eyes
  • Swollen eyelids

Your child might also have other symptoms of hay fever, such as sneezing or coughing.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Eye Allergies in Kids

If your child has never experienced eye allergies before, talk with their pediatrician about their symptoms. Eye allergies are diagnosed based on your child's symptoms. Allergy tests are rarely needed.

After eye allergies are diagnosed, your child's doctor will recommend management. Follow-up care will only be necessary if the treatment is not working.

In most cases, eye allergies are treated using over-the-counter (OTC) drugs and lifestyle adjustments to limit exposure to allergens.

For severe allergies, your child's doctor might recommend prescription medications or an allergy shot.

Treating and Preventing Eye Allergies in Kids at Home

The best way to control eye allergy symptoms in kids is prevention. If your child has a history of eye allergies, start giving them a daily OTC allergy medication before the start of the season in which their allergies usually occur (often in the spring).

Treatment

When taken daily, medications like Claritin (loratadine) and Zyrtec (cetirizine) can keep hay fever and eye allergy symptoms at bay.

If your child has breakthrough symptoms (symptoms that appear while they're taking medications), there are some other things that you can try.

Other ways to help prevent eye allergies and treat breakthrough symptoms include:

  • Washing your child's face with a cool washcloth and flushing their eyes (leave the washcloth over the eyes if your child prefers it)
  • Using a short-acting allergy medication, such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine)
  • For children ages 3 and up, using antihistamine eye drops like Zaditor (ketotifen) once a day

Prevention

To prevent eye allergies in kids, minimize their exposure to allergens. Ways that you can reduce exposure to allergy triggers include:

  • Using an air filter and vacuuming frequently
  • During allergy season, encouraging kids to wear hats and sunglasses to protect their eyes
  • Washing your child's hands frequently (particularly during allergy season) and reminding them not to touch their eyes. 
  • Closing windows and minimizing time outside during pollen season
  • Switching your child to glasses rather than contacts to minimize irritation
  • Washing your child’s hair nightly to remove any allergens

When to Seek Professional Help

In most cases, eye allergies are irritating but harmless. However, there are some situations in which you should speak to your child's doctor, including:

  • Your child still has itchy eyes after two days of treatment.
  • Your child has discharge from one eye or both eyes (other than clear tears).
  • Your child has a fever.
  • Your child's eyes are nearly swollen shut.

Summary

Eye allergies are common in kids. Itchy, watery, 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 just by their symptoms. They can provide you with treatment recommendations. Most of the time, OTC medications and lifestyle adjustments are enough to manage your child's allergies. If the symptoms are severe, your doctor might 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 by getting ahead of their symptoms by giving them an OTC allergy medication daily and taking steps to limit exposure to allergy triggers (such as washing their face and hands daily).

If symptoms don't go away or other signs appear, a visit to the pediatrician is in order to pinpoint the cause of the eye irritation and to get your child relief.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I tell the difference between eye allergies and pink eye in my child?

Eye allergies generally do not produce the pus and crusts that are the primary symptoms of pink eye (conjunctivitis). Eye allergies usually affect both eyes at the same time, whereas conjunctivitis often starts in one eye before moving to the other.

If your child has allergies, symptoms such as sneezing, coughing, or stuffiness may also be present.

If you're in doubt, reach out to your child's doctor. While allergies can usually be managed at home, conjunctivitis is very contagious and needs to be treated by a healthcare provider.

For how long do eye allergy symptoms in kids last?

The symptoms of eye allergies last as long as your child's eyes are exposed to allergens. For pollen allergies (hay fever), that can be four to eight weeks. During pollen season, it may be helpful to treat your child with daily allergy medication to help minimize their symptoms. 

How can I stop my child with eye allergies from itching?

Applying a cool washcloth to your child's eyes and flushing 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 get ahead of their symptoms is through prevention. This can include giving them daily OTC allergy medication and taking steps to reduce exposure to allergens at home and when they are outside.

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Allergy facts and figures. Updated April 2021.

  2. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Eye allergies (allergic conjunctivitis). Updated October 2015.

  3. Seattle Children’s. Eye allergy. Updated March 11, 2021.