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Eye Irritation: Causes, Diagnosis & Treatment

Eye irritation can be uncomfortable, problematic, and distressing. When your eyes are irritated, understanding the source of the irritation can help you find relief. 

Common causes of eye irritation are allergies, irritants, particles, contact lenses, infections, and other medical conditions. 

If you are experiencing eye irritation, finding quick relief is a top priority. If quick home remedies are not helping, check with your doctor or local emergency room. 

Causes of Eye Irritation

Eye irritation is a term used to cover bothersome sensations in the eyes, such as itchiness, dryness, burning, and scratchiness. 

Allergies

Your eyes may be irritated and itchy as a result of allergies. This can commonly occur with a change of seasons. In springtime, more pollen is released, and your allergies may flare up. 

Additionally, you may notice allergies as a result of changes in your living environment. such as getting a dog or cat. Some people are particularly sensitive to certain lotions, shampoos, soaps, or detergents. 

If your eyes are red, itchy, watery, or swollen, you may be having an allergic reaction to pollen, dust, pet dander, mold, perfume, cosmetics, or household cleaning supplies. You can see an allergist to be tested for allergies. 

Environmental Conditions

Your eyes may be feeling dry and irritated from air pollution and diminished air quality due to weather. Eyes may also be irritated by poor air found around indoor pools or highly chlorinated pools. 

Smoke in all forms can be irritating to the eyes.

Particles in the Air

Particles are sometimes called foreign objects. These may be tiny particles of sand, dust, dirt, or sawdust. These particles are irritating and can scratch the surface of your eye. 

This can feel painful and might get worse as you open and shut your eyes. You might experience redness, watering, and increased sensitivity to light. It can feel as if something is stuck in your eye. 

Contact Lenses

Contact lenses can be a cause of eye irritation, especially if you don’t take care of them properly. Contacts can cause dryness when worn over a long period. 

To confirm if your contacts are the cause of eye irritation, talk with your eye doctor. There may be other types of lenses or different patterns of use to reduce irritation. This may include wearing glasses for some activities to give your eyes time off from contacts.

Infections

Infections such as conjunctivitis can be the cause of eye irritation. This condition, also known as pink eye, can be caused by bacteria or a virus. It is highly contagious and often spread from one eye to another and from one person to another. 

Medications

Different medications may be the cause of eye irritation. To verify if this is the source of your eye irritation, check out your medicine cabinet to determine if any of the items you are taking are the source of the problem. Talk to your doctor about whether any of your prescribed medications could potentially be causing this issue.

Acne Medications

To address acne, many people take isotretinoin. This helps to reduce the oils made by specific glands that contribute to acne. However, some of the glands affected are those that create essential secretions for your eyes. Recent studies show that acne medication can cause eye irritation known as dry eye

Antidepressants 

Antidepressants work in different ways, such as blocking signals between nerve cells.  Tricyclic antidepressants can also block signals that alert your eyes to make sufficient tears. This can cause dry eyes. 

While the mechanisms may be different, other antidepressants such as SSRIs may also be contributing to dry and irritated eyes.

Birth Control Pills & Hormone Replacement Therapy

Some hormone pills can cause dry eyes. If you are taking birth control pills or other types of hormone replacement therapy prescriptions, talk to your doctor about side effects.

Antihistamines

Antihistamines block your allergic reactions to irritating things including pollen, mold, and pets. However, these drugs can also block your body’s tear production—creating dryness and eye irritation.

Skin Conditions

Various skin conditions can cause eye irritation. Here are some of them:

Ocular Rosacea

Ocular rosacea is present when rosacea occurs in and around the eye. The causes of ocular rosacea are still being researched, but it seems to be linked to an autoimmune disorder. This condition may be caused by microscopic bacteria on the eyelid or mites that live on eyelashes.

Symptoms include itchy eyes, dry eyes, and difficulty making tears. Your eyes may feel irritated, and your vision can become blurry. This can be due to the tiny glands along the eyelid not producing enough secretion, called meibum

Blepharitis

Blepharitis can create inflammation and swelling of the eyelids. This may cause problems inside and outside the eye. There may also be skin issues, such as dandruff or rashes along the edge of the eye.

Lifestyle

Do you spend hours staring at a computer screen? Computer screens include computers, laptops, smartphones, and televisions. If so, electronic devices may be the source of your eye irritation. 

Reading from an electronic screen triggers different blinking patterns than reading from a book. These blinking patterns can create stagnancy in the meibum glands. The meibum glands produce secretions that are essential for eye health and vision clarity. 

Computer vision syndrome, or digital eye strain, is a general term for eye irritation that is due to looking at screens for too long. Symptoms include itchy eyes, eye pain, headaches, and eye strain. The solution is to take breaks from screens.

When to See a Doctor

If your eyes are dry, red, irritated, or painful, it’s time to see an eye doctor. Your doctor can evaluate and diagnose the source of the issue. 

Several tests may help to determine causes and find out what is bothering your eyes.

Testing for Allergies

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology to diagnose the cause of eye allergies, your doctor will look for signs on your eyes. This can include swollen blood vessels on the eye’s surface. The examination is often done with a microscope called a slit-lamp microscope

If further tests are needed, your doctor may test for a specific type of white blood cell. This is done by gently scraping an area of the white of the eye, called the conjunctiva

You may be referred to an allergist to determine the exact types of allergens that are triggering your symptoms.

You may be able to begin allergy shots or immunotherapy to build up an immune response to these allergens. You can also take steps to avoid contact with them.

Testing Tears

Your eye doctor may test your tears to assess eye irritation. Here are some ways tears are tested:

Tear Volume

Testing the volume of tears is painless and straightforward. By determining the volume of tears, your eye doctor can assess if your eyes are sufficiently hydrated.

Tear Quality

Your doctor can use special dyes to determine the quality of your tears, how long until your tears evaporate, and how the tears are dispersed on the cornea. This all works together to assess their overall quality.

Tear Osmolarity

The tear osmolarity test determines the relative mixture of fluid and particles in your tears. If you’re experiencing dry eyes, there will be less fluid.

Treatment for Eye Irritation

Treatment will vary depending on the source of the eye irritation. If the source of injury requires urgent attention, go to your local emergency room or call 911.

Treating allergies starts with a clear diagnosis of what is causing the problem. This may require working with an allergist to determine the source of the specific cause.

Once you’ve determined what is causing the issue, treatment options are avoiding the allergen as well as treatment with eye drops and oral allergy medications. 

Home Care

If your eyes are irritated due to environmental irritants, the fastest remedy is to rinse your eyes with clean, lukewarm water. Using an over-the-counter eye drop, such as artificial tears, may provide relief.

Do not rub your eyes. Rubbing can increase irritation and does not provide lasting relief.

Eye Drops & Medications

Artificial tears are over-the-counter drops that can relieve eye irritation. Look for preservative-free ones to avoid further irritation. 

While decongestants can reduce redness and temporarily help with other symptoms, such as itchiness, they don’t work for long-term use. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, long-term use of decongestants may increase irritation and is not advised.

If your eye irritation is severe, talk with your doctor about other options, such as antihistamine eye drops, steroid eye drops, and immunotherapy shots. Working with your doctor, you can find the treatments that are best suited to your condition.

Eye Irritation FAQs

How do you treat an irritated eye? 

Treat dry or irritated eyes with good eye hygiene, such as cleaning eyelids every day, taking breaks from computer screens, using a dehumidifier, and taking breaks by using glasses instead of wearing contacts full-time. If home care steps don’t work, see an eye doctor promptly.

What is a home remedy for eye irritation?

Home remedies for eye irritation will depend on the cause. You can try blinking until sand or grit comes out of the eye. If that is not sufficient, try washing the eye with clear, warm water. This may help to remove irritating particles.

If your eyes feel dry or irritated, try using artificial tears. Rest your eyes if you have been using screens for prolonged periods.

How long does it take for an irritated eye to heal?

Healing time varies depending on the cause and severity of the irritation. For example, according to the CDC, conjunctivitis usually clears up in a week or two, but some cases take two to three weeks to completely heal.

What causes irritation in one eye?

Most often, irritation in one eye is due to a foreign object in the eye, such as an eyelash, piece of dust or dirt, or a bit of makeup.

References

  1. Irritation. (February 2021). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  2. The Itchy Eye: Diagnosis, Management of Ocular Pruritis. (February 2010). EyeNet Magazine, American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  3. Why Are My Eyes Itchy? Answers From an Expert. John Hopkins Medicine.

  4. Dry Eye Syndrome. Kellogg Eye Center. Michigan Medicine.

  5. Contact Lenses. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

  6. Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  7. Effects of Topical Acne Treatment on the Ocular Surface in Patients With Acne Vulgaris. (June 2016). Contact Lens & Anterior Eye Journal.

  8. Ocular Rosacea. American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  9. What is Blepharitis? American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  10. Computer Vision Syndrome (Digital Eye Strain). (April 2022). EyeWiki, American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  11. What are Eye Allergies? American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  12. Conjunctiva. American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  13. Comprehensive Adult Medical Eye Evaluation PPP 2020. (November 2020). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  14. All About Osmolarity. (May 2018). Review of Optometry.

  15. Conjunctivitis Symptoms & Treatments. National Health Service (NHS).

  16. Recognizing and Treating Eye Injuries. (May 2021). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Last Updated January 10, 2023

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