Burning Eyes: Understanding the Causes & Treatment Options
A stinging or irritating sensation in the eyes is often referred to as burning eyes.
Many different factors can result in burning eyes, including allergies, weather-related issues, various diseases, and exposure to an irritating substance. The levels of pain and discomfort can vary greatly among people with burning eyes.
Mild cases of burning eyes are often easy to treat and manage at home. Treatments include lubricating eye drops and warm compresses.
Medical attention may be necessary for more severe cases of burning eyes, especially if the burning sensation is accompanied by any discharge or drainage. It’s also generally better to err on the side of caution and see an eye doctor if you are concerned.
What Are Burning Eyes?
Burning eyes are classified as any condition that results in a stinging or irritating sensation in the eyes.
Burning eyes should not be confused with burning eye syndrome (BES), which is a disorder that typically occurs after some sort of trauma and causes intense pain and irritation. Burning eyes can be itchy and uncomfortable, but they are typically painless.
Most cases of burning eyes can be treated at home with over-the-counter medications. There are three main types of eye drops a person can purchase without a prescription that can effectively treat burning eyes.
- Artificial tears: This is a lubricant for the eyes that also has healing effects for the eye’s surface.
- Antihistamine eye drops: This is a treatment for burning eyes that are caused by allergies.
- Decongestant eye drops: These drops remove the redness in the eyes by shrinking blood vessels on the eye’s surface.
What Are the Top Causes of Burning Eyes?
There are several eye conditions that can lead to burning eyes. Here are some of them:
Conjunctivitis (pink eye) is when a membrane that lines the eyelid and eyeball becomes inflamed, resulting in irritated and burning eyes. Other conjunctivitis symptoms include the following:
- Watery eyes
- Blurred vision
- Mucus discharge
Conjunctivitis is highly contagious and usually caused by a viral infection or, in rarer cases, a bacterial infection.
Eye allergies occur when the eyes react to indoor or outdoor allergens, including pollen, mold, and dust mites. Eye allergies are uncomfortable and can cause inflammation, itchiness, watery eyes, and burning sensations. Symptoms are typically mild and do not lead to more serious eye conditions.
Usually caused by a buildup of bacteria on the eyelids from dead skin cells, blepharitis is a common, non-contagious eye condition. The most common symptoms of blepharitis include the following:
- Burning or stinging sensations
- Watery eyes
- Swollen eyelids
- Crusted eyelashes
Poor hygiene and skin conditions, such as rosacea and dandruff, can all lead to blepharitis.
Dry Eye Syndrome
Dry eyes are the result of the eyes not being able to produce enough tears. A number of factors can contribute to dry eyes, including aging, climate, and various medical conditions.
Despite causing a burning sensation and giving the eyes a reddish tint, dry eyes are typically not serious. However, in rare cases, dry eye syndrome can potentially lead to corneal ulcers and vision loss. In most cases, dry eyes are temporary.
Photokeratitis (eye sunburn) occurs when the surface of the eye is damaged from too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays. People who spend time in the sun without proper eye protection are at risk of burning their eyes.
Eye sunburns increase the risk of developing cataracts, macular degeneration, and eyelid cancer later in life. Symptoms of eye sunburn include the following:
- Burning sensations
- Blurred vision
- Watery eyes
- Extra sensitivity to light
Symptoms of eye sunburn typically go away after a few days.
Sometimes referred to as surfer’s eye, pterygium is caused by an abnormal growth on the eye’s limbal and conjunctival tissue. This growth is usually the result of too much long-term exposure to the sun’s UV rays.
Aside from the small growth on the eye, other symptoms of pterygium include redness, irritation, and burning sensations. If the pterygium grows big enough, it can also begin to blur or reduce vision. Extremely rare cases can scar the cornea and lead to blindness.
Typically developing in people with the skin condition rosacea, ocular rosacea inflames the eyes and causes itchiness, redness, and burning sensations. Ocular rosacea can be triggered by UV light, wind, or extreme temperatures.
What Are the Treatment Options for Burning Eyes?
There are several treatment options available that help to alleviate burning eyes. More mild cases of burning eyes can be treated naturally at home, while more serious cases may require medical attention.
Home Treatment Options for Burning Eyes
Try these home remedies to treat mild cases of burning eyes at home:
Rinse the Eyes
Carefully rinsing the eyes with lukewarm water helps to flush out any potential objects or irritants that could be causing the eye’s burning sensation. This also helps reduce dryness and inflammation.
Apply a Warm Compress to the Eyes
Even though it can sometimes temporarily alter visual acuity, a warm compress can treat burning eyes by hydrating the eyes. A warm compress can be made by soaking a clean washcloth in warm water and then placing it over the eyes. This can be done several times a day as needed.
Try Over-the-Counter Eye Drops
There are many over-the-counter eye drops that can help to lubricate and alleviate burning eyes.
Drink More Water
Consuming more water and keeping the body hydrated helps the eyes retain moisture, which can help reduce the severity of the burning eyes.
Take Breaks From Excessive Screen Time
There is a direct link between digital screen use and dry eye disease, which can contribute to burning eyes. Taking sufficient breaks from staring at a screen, changing the screen’s settings, and wearing blue light filtering glasses can all help ease strain on the eyes from screen time.
Consume Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Exclusive to people with ocular rosacea, foods and supplements that provide omega-3 fatty acids may help to alleviate burning eyes. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in various types of fish, nuts, and seeds.
Medical Treatment Options for Burning Eyes
For more serious cases of burning eyes, these medical treatments may be used:
Lubricating Eye Drops
When over-the-counter eye drops are not enough to relieve burning eyes, an optometrist or ophthalmologist might prescribe stronger prescription eye drops that can provide better relief if taken accordingly.
Anti-Inflammatory & Antiviral Eye Drops
When the sensation of burning eyes is caused by allergies or viral infections, an eye doctor might prescribe eye drops specific to fighting off symptoms of allergies or infections. Eye drops containing antihistamines are best for allergic eyes, while antiviral eye drops that stop the spread of viruses help to alleviate symptoms caused by infections.
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Comprehensive Review and Update of Burning Eye Syndrome. (July 2021). Journal of Patient-Centered Research and Reviews.
Conjunctivitis: A Systematic Review. (July 2020). Journal of Ophthalmic and Vision Research.
Diagnosis and Management of Blepharitis: An Optometrist’s Perspective. (March 2016). University of Missouri-St Louis College of Optometry.
Effect of Warm Compresses on Visual Acuity and Impression of Visual Clarity. (May 2006). Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science.
Pterygium: An Update on Pathophysiology, Clinical Features, and Management. (May 2021). Therapeutic Advances in Ophthalmology.
Sterile Corneal Perforations in a Case of Severe Dry Eyes. (August 2013). Medical Journal Armed Forces India.
Last Updated February 28, 2023
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