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Bloodshot Eyes: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Bloodshot eyes describe a condition when the blood vessels in the white part of the eye (sclera) are swollen. The condition can happen to one or both eyes but is not usually serious.

man with bloodshot eyes

Causes can include irritation, dryness, and lack of sleep.

You should see a doctor if you have pain, blurry vision or if redness does not go away within a day or two.

What Are Bloodshot Eyes?

Bloodshot eyes are when the white part of your eye (sclera) becomes red. Even though eye redness is not normal, it does not usually pose a serious medical concern. 

If you feel pain or have associated visual concerns, your red eyes could indicate a severe problem.

Bloodshot eyes come about because of swelling of blood vessels within the eye. The problem can occur in one or both eyes. Redness can result from a variety of causes

Causes

Dry Eyes

Dry eyes are common, with a prevalence rate of 5 percent to 50 percent. This rate is even higher among the elderly, going up to 73.5 percent. Dry eyes result from the inability to produce sufficient tears or high-quality tears to lubricate the eyes. 

Symptoms of dry eyes include:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Blurry vision
  • Burning sensation
  • Feeling like you have something in your eye

Conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis is the inflammation of the outer skin covering the white section of the eye. This inflammation can result from allergies, fumes/smoke, bacterial or viral infection. It leads to redness of the white eye, also called pinkeye. Other symptoms:

  • Tearing
  • Itching and burning sensation
  • Discharge from the eye
  • Crusty eyelashes
  • Sensitivity to light 

Injury 

Eye injuries can range from a small scratch to significant damage to the eye. These injuries can result from foreign objects entering the eye, chemical burns, poking, and scratching. After an injury, the body pushes more blood to the eye to accelerate healing. Consequently, the blood vessels swell, turning your eye red. Most often, eye injuries come with pain and increased tears.  

Blepharitis 

Blepharitis is the inflammation of the eyelid. It results from blockage of the oil glands of the eyelashes or when you have a bacterial infection. Sometimes, blepharitis comes from an overpopulation of eyelash mites called Demodex. 

Symptoms of blepharitis include:

  • Red and swollen eyelids 
  • Flakes at the base of your eyelashes 
  • Dry eyes 
  • Itchiness and burning sensation 

Glaucoma 

Glaucoma is a disease that damages the optic nerve in the eye. This damage usually results from increased pressure in the eye. It can lead to the development of blind spots in your visual field. Among the symptoms of glaucoma are:

  • Eye redness 
  • Blurred vision 
  • Pain in the eye 
  • Nausea

Allergies

Eye allergies result from pollen, pet dander, mold, and dust mites. Once these allergens get to the eye, your body releases histamine to fight them. The blood vessels swell as the body tries to fight the allergen. 

In addition to red eyes, you might feel a burning sensation, itching, and increased tearing. These symptoms often disappear once you remove the allergen.  

Scleritis 

It occurs when you have  inflammation in the white part of the eye. It’s not clear what causes scleritis. But sometimes, it occurs when the body’s defense mechanism attacks its own tissues. Symptoms of scleritis include:

  • Blurred and decreased vision 
  • Pain in the eye, jaw, head or face
  • Sensitivity to light 
  • Increased tearing 

Uveitis

Uveitis is an inflammation of the uvea. Uvea is the part of your eye between the retina and the white section. Some causes of uveitis include injury, infection, autoimmune diseases, and cancer.  

Symptoms include:

  • Eye floaters 
  • Pain in the eye 
  • Blurred vision 
  • Sensitivity to light 

When to See a Doctor

Bloodshot eyes may not indicate an emergency medical situation. However, you should see your doctor when:

  • You have blurry vision 
  • You feel pain in the eye 
  • Symptoms prolong for a week 
  • Your redeye came from trauma or injury 
  • You have other accompanying symptoms such as vomiting and nausea 
  • You experience eye discharge 
  • You have blind spots, circles, or white rings in your vision field 

Treatment

Often, bloodshot eyes may get better over time. If you experience severe symptoms, medical treatment and home remedies can help. That said, specific treatment will depend on the cause. Below are some options you can use. 

Antihistamines and Decongestants 

In case of allergies, your doctor can prescribe antihistamines and decongestants. These drugs will help reduce itchiness, swelling, and redness.   

Antibiotics

If red eyes result from bacterial infection, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics.  

Cold and Warm Compresses 

A cold compress involves wrapping ice in a piece of cloth and pressing it against your eye. It helps deal with allergies. On the other hand, warm compresses involve wetting a towel with warm water and pressing it against your eye. This home remedy helps deal with infections such as blepharitis.

Eye Drops 

Your doctor can give you eye drops to prevent dry and red eyes. The ‘red eye remover’ works by shrinking your blood vessels. However, your red eyes may worsen once you stop using the eye drops. 

Complications

If a bloodshot eye results from an injury, it can cause a severe problem. Also, bloodshot eyes can signify a severe underlying condition. If this condition results from infection or glaucoma, it can cause blurry vision. In rare cases, permanent eye damage can happen, including blindness. 

Prevention

You can prevent bloodshot eyes by following a few tips:

  • Avoid wearing contact lenses for extended durations 
  • Use protective eyeglasses when working in a dangerous environment 
  • Wash your eyes if they come into contact with substances that cause irritation 
  • Wash your hands regularly to minimize the risk of infection 
  • Avoid allergenic substances 
  • Maintain good eye hygiene to prevent blepharitis 

FAQs

What does a bloodshot eye indicate?

Bloodshot eyes come from the swelling of eye blood vessels. This swelling can come from injury, inflammatory disease, allergy, glaucoma, cancer, among other causes.   

When should I be concerned about bloodshot eyes? 

Bloodshot eyes don’t usually indicate a medical emergency. But if you feel pain and your symptoms last more than a week, you should see a doctor. You should also see a doctor if you have accompanying symptoms like nausea or your eye has a discharge. 

Is it normal to have bloodshot eyes?

It’s not normal to have bloodshot eyes. You should see your doctor if symptoms persist.

References

  1. Red Eye. (January 2018.) Cleveland Clinic.

  2. Prevalence and Associated Factors of Dry Eyes. (September 2015.) National Library of Medicine.

  3. What is Blepharitis. (September 2021.) American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  4. Glaucoma. (October 2020.) Mayo Clinic.

  5. National Center For Biotechnology Information. (October 2021.) Scleritis.

Last Updated April 27, 2022

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