Certain things are just meant to be scratchy, like a cat’s tongue and the lower half of Zayn Malik’s face (his stubble is perfection, OK?!). Scratchy eyes don’t make the cut, obviously.
The best way to fix scratchy eyeballs is to figure out what’s causing them to be so damn irritated in the first place. Here are the most common culprits, plus what doctors can do to make the scratchiness go away.
1. You’ve got allergies.
“Just like allergens can create a reaction when they hit the surface of your skin, they can do the same when they touch your eyeball,” 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.
When you’re allergic to something, it means your immune system overreacts to a certain substance. When you come into contact with the allergen in question, cells in your immune system release a chemical called histamine, the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) explains. Histamine is basically like, “Let the allergy games begin! May the odds be never in your favor.”
If you have scratchy eyes due to allergies, taking an over-the-counter antihistamine may help calm your eyeballs, the Mayo Clinic says. That said, there are tons of different ways to approach allergy symptoms based on which ones you have, how much they bother you, and how often you encounter your trigger. You can do everything from allergy-proofing your home to getting allergy shots to increase your resistance to certain substances. Talk to your doctor to figure out exactly what makes sense for you.
2. You have dry eye.
You get dry eye when your eyes can’t lubricate themselves well enough, the National Eye Institute (NEI) says. This is usually due to one of two factors: The amount of your tears is lacking or the quality of your tears is off-kilter. See, your tears are made up of three essential layers that help your eyes stay just wet enough. There’s a lower mucus-based layer that binds with a middle water and water-soluble protein layer, and there’s also an oily outer layer that tops it all off to trap moisture from evaporating too quickly.
If something screws with the flow of this system, either by lowering your tear production or messing with the quality of one of those three layers, you can get dry eye. As a result of that lack of moisture, your eyes can wind up feeling scratchy, Joel Hunter, M.D., founder of Hunter Vision, tells SELF. You might also experience other crummy symptoms like dryness (obviously), excessive tearing in response to said dryness, stinging, burning, redness, pain, sensitivity to light, and feeling like something is in your eye when it isn’t.
If you suspect that you have dry eye, it’s important to check in with a doctor, because it’s usually quite easy to find relief, Dr. Massaro-Giordano says. Your doctor will likely recommend you use over-the-counter artificial tears to help supplement the ones your eyes are making, the NEI says. If that doesn’t help, they might bump you up to prescription medication, like corticosteroid eye drops to help combat inflammation, or any of the other available options that might get your eyes back to a moisturized equilibrium.
3. Something’s stuck in your eye and wreaking havoc.
It’s pretty much a given that having something stuck in your eye is going to feel terrible. When you have something in your eye, it activates the “exquisitely sensitive” nerves in your cornea (the clear, dome-shaped outer surface of your eye), Dr. Massaro-Giordano says, sending signals to your brain that there’s an intruder afoot. Your eye’s response can run the gamut from pain to scratchiness.
There are a few things you can do to try to get whatever is stuck in your eye out, as long as you don’t actually see anything embedded in your eye (if you do, you should leave it alone and see a doctor ASAP).
Otherwise, wash and dry your hands, then try rinsing your eyes with fresh, clean water. Rest the rim of a small, clean drinking glass containing water or saline solution against the bone right underneath your eye socket, then pour the water over your eyeball, the Mayo Clinic says. Hopping in the shower and letting a gentle stream of lukewarm water hit your forehead while holding your eyelid open can help, too. There are also devices named eyecups made for the specific purpose of washing out your eyes. Who knew?
If giving your eyeball a little bath doesn’t help with the scratchy, WTF-is-in-my-eye feeling, see your doctor. They should be able to remove whatever’s in there, or determine if that sensation might be due to a condition like dry eye that can make it feel like something’s stuck in your eye when, in reality, nothing’s in there. If your body’s pulling that kind of unwelcome magic trick, your doctor should be able to suss out the problem and figure out how to treat it.
4. Something that got into your eye went the extra mile and actually scratched your eyeball.
It sounds like something that should only happen in Saw, but you can indeed scratch the front of your eyeball. This is called a corneal abrasion, and it can happen if a piece of abrasive matter—a grain of sand, a fleck of dust, you name it—scrapes your delicate cornea. This can lead to symptoms such as a gritty, scratchy feeling, pain, redness, tearing, sensitivity to light, a headache, and feeling like something’s in your eye, the Mayo Clinic says.
Your eye, magical organ than it is, can actually heal minor corneal abrasions in a few days, the Mayo Clinic says, but it’s still good to see a doctor about this if you can. A corneal abrasion can sometimes become infected and lead to a corneal ulcer, which is basically an open sore on your eye, so you want to make sure you’re not headed down that road.
In the meantime, while you wait to see your doctor, you can try to find relief by rinsing out your eye with clean water or saline solution. You can also blink a lot in an effort to dislodge any small bits of stuff in your eye, or pull your lower eyelid over your upper one to boost your tear production, potentially washing away the particle in question if it’s still in there. Your lower lashes could even sweep the foreign object away like tiny little brooms, the Mayo Clinic notes.
5. Your makeup is irritating your eyes.
Although makeup can definitely be a delightful way to express yourself, it can also come with downsides, one of which can have a big effect on your ocular health: Little granules of makeup, like eyeliner, can wind up in your tear film and then spread across your eye. “These granules are [foreign] bodies that can irritate or scratch the eye,” Aaron Zimmerman, O.D., an associate professor of clinical optometry at The Ohio State University, tells SELF.
Though this can happen based on a variety of factors, like the staying power of your eye makeup, it’s especially likely to occur if you apply makeup too close to your eyeballs (think: putting eyeliner on your waterline), Dr. Hunter says. When you do this, your makeup has almost laughably easy access to your eyes.
To try to avoid makeup getting in your eyes, steer clear of tightlining (or at least reserve it for very rare, very special occasions) and try to use mascara, eyeliner, and eyeshadow that you trust to budge as little as possible. Also, be sure you’re swapping out your eye makeup as often as the manufacturer recommends—keeping it around for too long might increase your risk of infection if any wayward flecks of makeup do wind up in your eyes.
6. Your contacts are bothering your eyes for some reason.
Contacts are amazing little devices that can help you see better in an instant, but they can also make your eyeballs scratchy as all get out if you don’t use them properly. Unfortunately, there are a lot of sneaky contact lens mistakes you could be making, like inserting or removing your contacts without washing and drying your hands first, falling asleep in your contacts, using old solution to store your contacts, and more.
These kinds of mistakes open you up to issues like keratitis, an irritating inflammation of your corneas that can cause scratchiness, pain, blurry vision, and other symptoms. And, if you already have issues like dry eye, contact lens mistakes could just worsen the situation, potentially making your eyes scratchier than you ever thought possible.
Your contacts can also cause irritation and inflammation if they’re too tight or too loose, Dr. Massaro-Giordano says. Yes, this is a thing! Your contacts need to fit your eyes properly, which is why your doctor does a thorough examination of your eyes before writing your contact lens prescription. Since your eyes change over time, making sure you see an eye doctor at least once every other year so you can keep an up-to-date prescription is key.
If you put your contacts in and your eyes suddenly feel scratchy or irritated, it’s best to wash and dry your hands, pop the contacts out, clean them with fresh solution, and try again. But if that doesn’t fix your issue, it’s time to see your eye doctor to make sure everything is OK with your eyes.
7. Your eyelids are inflamed.
Eyelid inflammation is known as blepharitis, and it can happen for a number of reasons, including a bacterial infection on your eyelids, an allergic reaction to your makeup, or a problem with the Meibomian glands that make that oily outer layer of your tear film, the Mayo Clinic says. In addition to causing scratchiness, blepharitis can lead to issues like crust along your lashline, swollen and greasy eyelids, flaky eyelid skin, eyes that sting, burn, and are sensitive to light, and feeling like something’s in your eye when there’s nothing in there. It’s not a picnic, is what we’re saying.
To deal with blepharitis in the short-term, you can use a warm compress to dislodge crust and tamp down on irritation and inflammation. Beyond that, treatment for blepharitis depends on the specific cause. It can range from antibiotics to target a bacterial infection to prescription eye drops that battle inflammation and more, according to the Mayo Clinic. See a doctor to make sure you know what caused your blepharitis, how to treat it, and what you can do to keep your eyelids so soothed it’s like they’re on a permanent vacation.