It is estimated that 50 million people in the U.S. have seasonal allergies, and that number is on the rise. Allergies affect up to 30 percent of adults and up to 40 percent of children.

In addition to having symptoms of sneezing, congestion and a runny nose, most of these allergy sufferers also experience severe eye symptoms including itching, watering, redness, and blurred vision.

So what causes these symptoms? Allergens of course.

These are harmless substances that cause problems for individuals who are predisposed to allergic reactions. The most common airborne allergens that cause eye allergies are pollen, mold, dust and pet dander.

Eye allergies also can be caused by reactions to certain preservatives that you are putting directly in the eye. These preservatives can be found in cosmetics, face and-or eye creams and eye drops.

Not everyone is sensitive to these preservatives, so sometimes it is hard to pinpoint which of the products is the offending agent.

Food allergies and allergic reactions to bee stings or other insect bites typically do not affect the eyes as severely as airborne allergens do.

If you have the annoying “eye allergy” problem, what do you do? Ben Franklin said an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of a cure. (He was also the inventor of bifocals, so he is near and dear to my heart).

The first way to prevent eye allergies is to see your eye doctor before exposure to the allergens that bother you. Also, try to limit your exposure to the allergen as much as possible.

Is tree pollen your problem? Use that as an excuse to organize your sock drawer in the air-conditioned house during those two or three weeks that tree pollen is prevalent instead of replacing every plant in your front yard.

If you do need to spend time outside, invest in a good pair of wraparound sunglasses to prevent the allergens from getting near the eyes.

Also, over-the-counter, non-preserved artificial tears are worth their weight in gold, as they can wash allergens from the eyes.

Next, if your eyes itch, don’t rub them! Your eye allergy symptoms actually worsen because rubbing releases more histamine.

If you are a contact lens wearer, cutting down on your contact lens wear or switching to daily disposable lenses will reduce the allergen build-up on your lenses.

Lastly, consider an air purifier for your home as well as using allergen-trapping filters for your furnace.

Eye allergy symptoms are nothing to sneeze at, but if you are a sufferer, we hope these tips will make the season a time you don’t dread.

Catherine Darling, O.D. is the owner of Darling Eye Center, with offices in Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island.