What’s a Red Eye?
What causes red eye?
Red eye has many different causes. Sometimes it is something as simple as wearing contact lenses for too long, or staring at a computer screen for lengthy periods of time without a break. Other causes include, among others: allergies, blepharitis (inflamed eyelid), conjunctivitis (pink eye), dry eye, eye injury, or glaucoma.
- Allergies: When an irritating substance (such as pollen, pet dander, dust, or certain chemicals found in makeup or contact lens solutions) gets into a person’s body, the immune system reacts. The body releases histamine to fight off the allergens, which causes blood vessels in the eyes to enlarge, and eyes become red, watery, and itchy.
- Blepharitis (inflamed eyelid): This is a common condition that causes the eyelid to become red and inflamed. In addition to a red, swollen eyelid, the eye may also burn, itch, be sensitive to light, and have excessive tears.
- Conjunctivitis (pink eye): Conjunctivitis is one of the most common eye infections, especially among children. It occurs when the conjunctiva, the thin, transparent membrane that covers the white of the eye and lines the eyelids, gets infected. When the conjunctiva is infected, the blood vessels inside it become irritated and swell, making the eye look red or pink. Many times the eyelids also emit a sticky discharge, and eyelashes can stick together.
There are different types of pink eye. Viral eye infections, the most common, tend to improve on their own, and don’t require prescription medication. Bacterial eye infections require antibiotics. Both types of infection, particularly viral, are contagious and spread easily.
Children are most likely to get pink eye because they are in close contact with others in school or day care centers. Because some types of pink eye are contagious, it is important to see a doctor for correct diagnosis and treatment of the infection. Family physicians or pediatricians can diagnose and treat some eye infections.
- Dry eye: When eyes do not produce enough tears, or produce tears that lack the lipid part, dry eye is the result. Adequate and well-functioning tears are needed for eyes to be healthy and comfortable. Dry eye symptoms include stinging or burning, lots of tears followed by periods of dryness, and possible mucus discharge. The condition may be painful, and eyes may be red. Men and women can get dry eye, although it is more common in women, especially those who have gone through menopause. As people age, they produce less of the lipid part of the tears, which puts them at greater risk for dry eye. Dry eye is also a side effect of taking certain medicines. The condition initially can be managed by moistening eyes with artificial tears eye drops.
- Eye injury: A trauma or an injury to the eye can cause red, bloodshot eyes. Blood vessels in the eye dilate (open) to allow more blood to get to the injury site for quicker healing. These open blood vessels are what cause the red eye. Eye injuries can include corneal abrasions (scratches to the surface of the eye), puncture wounds, and chemical burns. These eye injuries need immediate medical attention and should be treated as a medical emergency.
- Glaucoma: In most cases, glaucoma comes on gradually and usually does not have symptoms at first. Acute or severe glaucoma is a sight-threatening condition that needs urgent medical attention. Be alert to suddenly painful, bright-red eyes, accompanied by seeing halos around lights, vision loss, and nausea.
What are the treatments for red eye?
Remedies for red eye are wide-ranging. Here are some common treatments:
- Many times, rest, cool compresses over closed eyes
- Lightly massaging the eyelids
- Gently washing the eyelids, and/or over-the-counter eye drops, can relieve the symptoms
- Other times, an eye doctor may recommend and prescribe antibiotics, special eye drops, or ointments
Here are other treatments for specific conditions including:
- Red eye due to allergies. In addition to avoiding the allergen (if it is known), treatment usually consists of over-the-counter eye drops. Using artificial tear drops will wash allergens from the eye and add moisture to relieve dry, irritated eyes. Decongestant eye drops reduce redness in the eyes from allergies. Decongestant eye drops with an antihistamine will also help relieve itchiness.
- Blepharitis. Treatment usually involves keeping the eyelids clean. Wetting a washcloth with warm water, wringing out excess water, and holding it to the closed eyelid(s) for several seconds can help relieve symptoms. Dipping a cotton swab into a mixture of water and baby shampoo to lightly wash the eyelid will also help. Once the condition occurs, it usually does not go away completely, so it is important to clean the eyelids regularly. In some cases, the eye doctor may also prescribe antibiotics or steroid eye drops.
- Bacterial or viral pink eye:
- Place a warm, damp washcloth over the infected, closed eye for a few minutes. This will also loosen dried mucus if eyelashes or eyelids are sticking together.
- Use a clean washcloth each time so the infection does not spread.
- If the pink eye is in both eyes, use a different washcloth for each eye.
- Use over-the-counter lubricating eye drops (artificial tears).
6 Tips to prevent red eye
- Wear proper safety glasses as prescribed by your eye doctor
- Don’t rub the eyes. Dirt and germs on the hands and fingers can cause even more redness and irritation.
- Keep contact lenses clean, and do not wear them longer than recommended.
- Remove eye makeup properly and keep eyes clean.
- Take regular breaks when looking at the computer screen for long periods of time.
- Schedule an eye exam to make sure the cause of red eye is not something more serious.