“Fire” and “eyes” are two things that should never go together, even figuratively. Unfortunately, that terrible burning eyes sensation can happen to the best of us.
“This is very common, and there are so many different reasons for it,” Mina Massaro-Giordano, M.D., co-director of the Penn Dry Eye & Ocular Surface Center and a professor of clinical ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania, tells SELF. Here are some of the most common reasons why your eyes might be lit in an awfully uncomfortable way.
1. Dry eye can make it feel like your eyes are burning up in their sockets.
As you might have guessed, dry eye can make your eyes feel parched, but it can cause a not-so-lovely burning sensation, too. “Burning…is a fairly common complaint among patients with dry eyes,” Tatevik Movsisyan, O.D., a clinical assistant professor at The Ohio State University College of Optometry, tells SELF.
If you develop dry eye, it essentially means your eyes can’t stay wet enough, according to the National Eye Institute. This happens when the amount or quality of your tears isn’t keeping your eyes as moist (sorry) as they should, which can lead to irritation. The nerve endings in your corneas (the transparent layer on the front of your eyes) are very sensitive, and if they’re irritated, you may experience a burning sensation, Dr. Massaro-Giordano says. You might also have to deal with other dry eye symptoms like stinging, itching, scratchiness, redness, pain, excessive tearing, sensitivity to light, and more.
If your doctor suspects you’re dealing with dry eye, they’ll likely have you try using artificial tears to treat it, the NEI says. If that doesn’t cool things off, they may want you to pursue other avenues, like special eye drops to combat inflammation or one of the many other dry eye treatments out there. In any case, you should see a doctor to land on the best option for you.
2. Allergies can also lead to burning eyes.
Allergies can cause a burning feeling in your eyes through what’s known as allergic conjunctivitis. Conjunctivitis is actually the fancy term for pink eye, surprisingly enough. You’re probably more familiar with the kind of pink eye linked to bacteria or viruses, but allergens can cause it, too.
No matter what kind of pink eye you have, it happens when something irritates your conjunctiva, the delicate membrane that covers your eyes and insides of your eyelids, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI). In the case of allergic conjunctivitis, this can take place when your body overreacts to an otherwise harmless substance, i.e., an allergen, that prompts an immune response. In a misguided attempt to protect you, your immune system produces antibodies known as immunoglobulin that travel to various cells in your body, prompting them to release chemicals that ultimately cause an allergic reaction, the AAAAI explains. That, in turn, might leave you with fiery eyes.
If you think this is what’s behind your burning eyes, avoiding your trigger is one of the best things you can do. However, if you’re allergic to something ubiquitous like dust mites or pollen, you might be rolling your (hot as hell) eyes at that advice. It’s true that you can do things like specifically target dust when you clean and pollen-proof your home, but you can also do things like use antihistamines to counter your symptoms or ask your doctor about allergy shots, which are meant to boost your tolerance to these substances over time.
3. Maybe you got an irritant in your eyes without realizing it, resulting in a burning sensation.
Your eyes are pretty sensitive, so a ton of different things like your face wash, makeup, and moisturizer can bother them, Dr. Movsisyan says.
If you’re just dealing with mild burning, you can try to play detective and figure out what’s causing your issue, Dr. Massaro-Giordano says. For example, if you recently started using a new moisturizer or mascara, try cutting out the potential offender and seeing where that gets you. But if you can’t figure it out or you’re super uncomfortable, see your eye doctor for help.
4. Your eyes might feel like they’re going up in flames due to blepharitis.
Blepharitis is eyelid inflammation that causes your lids to become red, irritated, itchy, and crusty. You might also have to deal with a burning or gritty sensation in your eyes themselves, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Blepharitis can happen for various reasons. It might rear its head if you get a bacterial infection on your eyelids, have an allergic reaction to makeup, develop clogging in the glands that pump oil into your tear film so your eyes can’t stay as moisturized as they should, or even if you have rosacea, which can affect your eyes in a condition called ocular rosacea.
If you have blepharitis, you can usually make yourself feel better in the short-term by holding a warm compress over your eyes to loosen up any crustiness and soothe inflammation. Your doctor might want to have you undergo more intense treatment, like using eyedrops to fight infection or control inflammation, so it’s important to check in with them as soon as you can.
5. Finally, it’s possible to get a sunburn on your eyes, which can obviously come with painful consequences.
This is known as photokeratitis (or ultraviolet keratitis), and it can happen thanks to too much exposure to UV rays, typically from the sun, according to the Cleveland Clinic. That can damage your corneas and conjunctiva, resulting in everything from burning eyes to blurry vision to a temporary loss of eyesight, and even more symptoms beyond that.
Luckily, photokeratitis symptoms tend to recede within 48 hours, according to the Cleveland Clinic. That means you can often handle the symptoms on your own (we all know it might take longer than that to get a doctor’s appointment, after all).
If you’ve been out in the sun and are suddenly dealing with photokeratitis symptoms, the Cleveland Clinic recommends going inside immediately, staying in a dark room if you can, taking out your contacts if you use them, and not rubbing your eyes. Placing cool, wet compresses over your eyes may help you ride it out until your symptoms abate, Dr. Massaro-Giordano says. Beyond that, taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) might help combat discomfort, too.
If your symptoms persist after two days, or if it hasn’t been that long but you’re seriously freaked out, see your doctor. They may prescribe anti-inflammatory eye drops, or otherwise land on a solution that feels like you’re throwing a bucket of cold water on your eyes in the best way possible.