Some mornings we look into the mirror and they are staring back at us: dry, irritated, bloodshot eyes. Hopefully, this is just the sign of a late night, but persistently irritated and burning eyes could indicate a more serious problem, like an eye infection or allergic reaction.
Our first instinct is to use over-the-counter eye drops to help soothe our eyes and reduce the redness. These may provide temporary relief, but they do little or nothing to treat the underlying causes of irritation. In fact, they can dangerously mask them, possibly worsening the problem later on.
Fortunately, other over-the-counter remedies can treat many causes of eye irritation. But when eye problems worsen or persist over time, it's wise to get your eyes examined to rule out the possibility of a more serious condition. Your ophthalmologist may suggest a prescription medication to help treat the problem.
Your eyes are complex and delicate organs. Keeping them healthy is important in ensuring that they will provide you with good service throughout your life.
The comfort of your eyes depends on several factors, including the proper production of tears, the correct function and position of the eyelids, and the absence of infections and allergic reactions. All these factors must happen for the eye to be comfortably lubricated.
Eye irritation often happens when parts of the eye swell in natural response to infection or allergic reaction. The cornea the clear part of the eye covering the iris and the pupil is a sensitive layer of tissue. Even a small amount of inflammation of the cornea or the nearby tissues can cause a great deal of discomfort. Eye redness occurs when blood vessels in the conjunctivae (the thin, clear tissue layer covering the "white" of the eye) dilate. This is in response to infection, dryness, allergies, and other problems.
Eye irritation comes in many forms and can signal many different problems. By making note of whether your eyes burn, water, become red, or produce a discharge, you and your doctor can more correctly determine the source of the irritation.
Goals of Treatment
Relieving the discomfort and redness of an irritated eye is important, but it should not overshadow the need to resolve the underlying problem. You may be tempted to use eye drops such as Visine to "get the red out." However, such eye drops contain vasoconstrictors chemicals that temporarily constrict the blood vessels of your eye. Once you discontinue such medications, your eyes may become even redder. Consider using artificial tears rather than eye drops that contain vasoconstrictors.
If you do have bacterial conjunctivitis, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic eye drop for you and recommend using warm or cool compresses on your eyes. Usually, the infection will end in one to two weeks. Viral conjunctivitis is very contagious. Prescription medications are also available for the relief of seasonal, allergy-related eye irritation. Your doctor may recommend cold compresses to help relieve the symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis.
Self care & Prevention
Preventing Eye Irritation
Viral or bacterial conjunctivitis (pinkeye) is highly contagious, but you can avoid it. Wash your hands frequently to help prevent your eyes from becoming infected or infecting someone else. Avoid touching the infected eye(s). If you have to touch your eye, wash your hands. Do not share washcloths or towels that are used for drying hands with other people.
It is important not to contaminate bottles of eye medication by allowing them to come in contact with the eyelid. Also, if you wear contact lenses, ask your doctor whether you should stop wearing your contact lenses for awhile. Contact lenses can spread infection from one eye to the other, and you should thoroughly disinfect them if worn in an infected eye. Discard old eye makeup and avoid using replacements until the infection is gone.
You can minimize allergic conjunctivitis by avoiding the offending agents, such as grass or chemicals.
- Keep blinking. Neglecting to do so is a main cause of eye irritation among computer users. Blinking washes, hydrates, and lubricates the eye. Computer screens have a subtle hypnotic effect that suppresses blinking, so computer users are at risk for dry, irritated eyes. Look away from your screen frequently and blink.
- Get enough sleep. Most people need at least seven hours a night. Many need eight or more.
- Follow your doctor's advice. The best help you can give yourself is to carefully stick to the regimen your doctor prescribes. Do your best to create a sterile environment to minimize the chances of infecting or reinfecting your eyes. If you are given an antibiotic drop or ointment, take it as directed. Avoid using eye drops with vasoconstrictors, as these only disguise the degree of your eye problem. Most importantly, seek the aid of your ophthalmologist if your eyes do not improve after three days. Early medical treatment is important in overcoming infectious eye problems.
Last updated 24 May 2012
Possible Underlying Causes
Conjunctivitis, also called pinkeye, is a major cause of irritated eyes. Conjunctivitis is a swelling of the conjunctiva, the layer of tissue overlaying the white of the eye (the sclera) and the inside of the eyelids (the bulbar conjunctiva). The two types of conjunctivitis are allergic and acute. Viral or bacterial infections cause acute conjunctivitis, the most common eye disease.
A wide variety of environmental allergens can cause allergic conjunctivitis. If you have hay fever, you know firsthand that watery, itchy eyes are the usual symptoms. Adopting a kitten, switching contact lens solutions, or using a different kind of soap or cosmetic can aggravate your eyes. Chemical irritants and air pollution can also cause conjunctivitis.
Inflammation of the eyelid can cause a burning, gritty sensation of the eye. If an eyelid is lax, it can turn inward or outward, causing the lashes to rub against the eye or the eye to become exposed. Styes (small, pus-filled abscesses on the eyelid that cause the feeling of something foreign in the eye) can also cause extreme discomfort.
Finally, eye irritation can happen in response to a poor night's sleep, extended exposure to wind or sun, or contact with environmental chemicals. Use artificial tears to help soothe your eyes by restoring your eye's moisture until your natural film of tears returns.
Triggers of Irritated Eyes
Exposure to known allergens, such as grass or air pollution, may cause eye irritation.
Drugs That Can Cause or Aggravate Irritated Eyes
Retinoids such as etretinate and acitretin may cause eye irritation or dryness.
Diagnosing the Underlying Cause
Eye irritation has many possible causes. A doctor can treat almost all of them quickly with early detection and intervention. Some causes may be due to an underlying disease or disorder of the entire body, in which case they may be accompanied by other symptoms that are characteristic of the disorder.
The following conditions may include eye irritation among their symptoms, but the presence of eye irritation should not lead you to conclude that you have a more serious disorder. You should not attempt to diagnose yourself with a medical condition, even if your symptoms match the characteristics of a certain disorder. If your symptoms concern you, the best thing to do is to seek medical advice. In order to understand your symptoms and reach a diagnosis, your doctor will consider your medical history, which symptoms you have, and the results of an ophthalmologic examination and laboratory tests.