In a perfect world, eye pain simply wouldn’t exist. Your eyes would look and feel amazing 100 percent of the time, given their hugely important role. In reality, things don’t always work that way. Just like anything else on your body, sometimes your eyes can start hurting out of nowhere.
Many eye pain causes won’t disappear without treatment, so putting off that doctor’s appointment may just delay your discomfort, Vivian Shibayama, O.D., an ophthalmologist at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, tells SELF. If your eye pain comes along with any of the following symptoms, you need to see a doctor ASAP.
1. In addition to hurting, your eye has taken on a pink or red tinge.
Having a painful eye that’s also a weird flushed color can be a sign of a few things. For starters, that bloodshot look may signal that you have something stuck in there. Though you can try certain tactics to get rid of something stuck in your eye, like blinking a lot and flushing out your eyeball with clean water, if the pain and redness persist, it’s smart to see a doctor. (Or, if you’re dealing with something embedded in your eyeball, you should see a doctor immediately instead of trying to handle it on your own.)
There are also a few health conditions that tend to cause eye pain and redness. For instance, if your eyes are persistently red and uncomfortable, there’s a solid chance you could be dealing with dry eye, Dr. Shibayama says.
In case you’re not familiar with dry eye, it happens when your eyes can’t lubricate themselves adequately, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI). Dry eye usually happens when either the amount or quality of your tears can’t keep your eyes moist enough. This condition usually comes with a collection of unpleasant symptoms beyond redness and pain, including scratchiness, feeling like something is in your eye even when nothing is, stinging or burning, excessive tearing interchanged with dry spells, discharge, sensitivity to light, and blurry vision, the NEI says.
If you’re dealing with a lot of these symptoms, ask your doctor whether or not dry eye may be at the root of your issues. If it is, your doctor may suggest trying out over-the-counter artificial tears to see where that gets you. If that doesn’t help, they can discuss other, more intensive treatment options like prescription medications.
Conjunctivitis is another possible cause of the eye-pain-and-redness double whammy, Anupama Anchala, M.D., an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells SELF. (You may be familiar with conjunctivitis’s more casual moniker, pink eye.) Conjunctivitis happens when your conjunctiva (the thin, clear tissue lining your eyelids and the whites of your eyes) get inflamed. It can have one of several different causes, including bacteria, viruses, irritants like chlorine, and allergies, the NEI says, and you may experience other symptoms as well, like sensitivity to light, excessive tearing and discharge, and feeling like something’s in your eye even if there isn’t.
Treatment for conjunctivitis depends on which kind of pink eye you have—antibiotics aren’t going to do jack for a viral infection, for instance—which is why it’s really best to see your eye doctor about next steps.
2. You’re waking up with crusty lashes, which probably isn’t the look you’re going for.
Hi, pink eye, nice to see you again. Conjunctivitis can absolutely cause this, as can dry eye and blepharitis, an eyelid inflammation that can lead to goopy eye discharge, red, swollen eyelids, and a burning feeling in your eyeballs, among other symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can also cause redness. Apparently blepharitis is a real overachiever?
You can get blepharitis for a few different reasons, including getting a bacterial infection on your eyelids, having an allergic reaction to makeup, or having clogging in the glands that pump oil into your tear film to keep your eyes nice and wet.
If you suspect that you’re dealing with blepharitis, you may be able to ease your symptoms by holding a warm compress over your eyes to loosen the crust and soothe inflammation, the Mayo Clinic says. But it’s still a good idea to see your doctor—especially if you’re having a lot of discharge and pain. They may want you to use medication like eye drops to fight infection or control inflammation.
If your eye pain comes with discharge, excessive tearing, redness, and swelling near the inside corner of your eye, you could have a blocked tear duct. This can happen due to an issue like infection or injury, or even just because of the normal narrowing in your tear ducts as you age, the Mayo Clinic says. There are a few ways to treat this, including antibiotics to fight infection, massaging the blocked duct, or getting a stent put in to help with drainage—all of which require help from a doctor.
3. You wish the sun would give up already because your eyes just can’t with any light right now.
Eye pain combined with sensitivity to light is a clear sign that something is up with your eyes and you may need treatment, Dr. Anchala says. While plenty of conditions can include sensitivity to light, like dry eye and blepharitis, it’s also possible that your urge to wear sunglasses 24/7 is due to a corneal abrasion.
Get ready to squirm: A corneal abrasion is basically a scratch on your cornea (the clear, dome-shaped, outermost layer of your eye). It can happen because of things like wayward sand, dust, dirt, wood shavings, or even your contact lenses, the Mayo Clinic says.
Most corneal abrasions heal in just a day or two, but if the pain persists after that (or if you’re dealing with a lot of strange eye symptoms), it’s important to get checked out. A corneal abrasion can lead to a corneal ulcer, which is an open sore on your cornea. Unlike getting bumped up to first class, this is a terrible upgrade; a corneal ulcer can cause vision damage if left untreated, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. If you have a corneal ulcer, your doctor may want you to use antibiotic drops to prevent infection, steroid drops to reduce inflammation, or some other form of treatment to target the exact cause of your ulcer.
4. Your eyeballs are on fire. OK, not really, but they feel like it.
Things like dry eye, allergies, and blepharitis can all make your eyes feel hot enough to shoot laser beams, but so can issues like photokeratitis (also called ultraviolet keratitis), which is UV damage to your corneas that basically results in a sunburn. Yes, on your eyes.
As you can guess, photokeratitis feels about as awful as it sounds, with the potential to cause additional issues like swelling, watery eyes, and sensitivity to light, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
If you think you have photokeratitis, taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug or putting a cold washcloth over your eyes may help with the pain in the 48 hours it usually takes for symptoms to dissipate. But if you’re not sure that’s exactly what you’re dealing with—and many times you won’t be—going into the doctor can only help, not hurt, your cause.
5. Your vision is blurry or otherwise changing in a freaky way.
Blurry vision can happen with a number of eye conditions, including many we’ve mentioned thus far. It can also be a sign of keratitis, which is corneal inflammation. Keratitis usually also comes with redness, excessive tears or discharge, sensitivity to light, and a feeling like something is in your eye, the Mayo Clinic says.
Keratitis can crop up because of a ton of things, including injuries, corneal abrasions, bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites. (Your eyes’ ability to go wonky in so many ways would be admirable if it weren’t incredibly annoying.)
You don’t want to try to ignore keratitis, if you have it. Letting keratitis go can cause permanent damage that can impact your vision, the Mayo Clinic says. If your doctor suspects you have keratitis, they may prescribe eye drops to target the specific cause of your corneal inflammation.
You may have picked up on a pattern here: A bunch of wildly different eye issues can have confusingly similar symptoms, which is why seeing a doctor for eye pain is so important.
Since so many of the symptoms of these conditions overlap, it can be hard to tell on your own what’s behind your eye pain. It’s often even tough for doctors to know what’s up with eye pain unless they do a thorough eye exam, Dr. Shibayama says. So, even though treat yo’self is a great mantra, sometimes a trip to the doctor is really your best bet.