If your eyes are bloodshot, it’s kind of like they’re waving tiny red flags and begging for your attention. Red eyes are basically alerting you to the fact that something might be up with your health (even if that something is actually pretty minor, as most of the potential causes behind bloodshot eyes are).
Your eyes get that pink or red look when the blood vessels in your conjunctiva (the mucous membrane covering the front of your eyes and the insides of your eyelids) dilate in response to some kind of irritation, Devin Mackay, M.D., director of neuro-ophthalmology at Indiana University Health, tells SELF. That makes your blood vessels look more pronounced, so the whites of your eyes take on a pink or red tinge.
There are definitely things you can do to fix the discoloration, but like most health conditions, you have to get to the root of the problem in order to treat it. Here are the most common reasons why you might have bloodshot eyes, plus how to get your eyes back to normal ASAP.
1. For starters, redness-reducing eye drops could be your surprising culprit.
Why wouldn’t you reach for redness-reducing eye drops in this scenario? Well, it’s counterintuitive, but those kinds of eye drops can actually make red eyes worse.
Redness-reducing eye drops work by constricting your dilated blood vessels, which does clear up the redness temporarily. But your blood vessels may just dilate again once the eye drops wear off, and they might even get bigger, so your eyes can become redder as a result. This rebound effect can make you feel like your eyes are caught in a vicious, ever-reddening cycle.
Instead of using redness-reducing drops, if you need over-the-counter eye drops for any reason (like to help with many of the below conditions), look for artificial tears that are simply meant to add moisture to your eyes, not make them brighter.
2. Redness can be a sign that your exhausted eyes have had enough for the day.
You don’t blink as much when you’re really concentrating on something, whether it’s because you’re speeding through a consuming novel, driving for miles on a road trip, or browsing Instagram for hours on end. This can open you up to eyestrain, which is essentially when you use your eyes so intensely you tire them out. Eyestrain can cause irritation, making the blood vessels in your conjunctiva dilate and create that bloodshot look, Tatevik Movsisyan, O.D., a clinical assistant professor at The Ohio State University College of Optometry, tells SELF.
There are some simple ways to combat eyestrain, like reminding yourself to blink more often when you’re focusing on something, and following the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.
3. Dry eye can do a lot of things to your eyes, including turning their whites red.
Dry eye isn’t just about having eyeballs that are thirstier than the cast of Vanderpump Rules at an open bar—red eyes can be a side effect as well.
If you have dry eye, that means your eyes have trouble staying lubricated enough, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI). This can happen either because your eyes don’t produce enough tears to keep your eyeballs wet or because something is wrong with the quality of your tears themselves.
Either way, that lack of adequate moisture can irritate your eyes, which, in turn, can cause the blood vessels in your conjunctiva to dilate and create a pink or reddish look, 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. Dry eye usually comes with a bunch of other unpleasant symptoms as well, like burning, itching, stinging, and sensitivity to light, so you really want to see a doctor for this one.
With a doctor’s guidance, you can get rid of dry eye-induced redness and other symptoms. Your doctor may recommend that you start with artificial tears to get your eyes nice and moist, the NEI says. If that doesn’t help, your doctor can discuss other treatment options with you, like special eye drops to fight inflammation.
4. Your eyes could be discolored because of pink eye.
No, pink eye doesn’t automatically mean some wily poop particles made it to your eyeballs (although, to be honest, it could). A wide range of things can cause pink eye (also called conjunctivitis), including all sorts of viruses and bacteria, allergies, and stuff that just irritates your eyes, like your contacts or chlorine, according to the NEI. No matter the cause, the condition comes about when something irritates or infects your conjunctiva, so it makes sense that redness in one or both eyes would be a central symptom of this health issue.
Other symptoms include itchiness, a gritty feeling, discharge that might even form a crust overnight that makes it tough to open your eyes in the A.M., and tearing. Since these symptoms can be pretty similar to those of other conditions, like dry eye, it’s key that you see a doctor to figure out what’s actually affecting your eyes.
Treatment for pink eye varies depending on the type you have. Viral pink eye typically goes away on its own in a few weeks, but the bacterial kind needs antibiotics, and besting the allergy-related form of the condition might require things like antihistamine eye drops. If you have no idea where to start, your doctor can show you the way.
5. It’s no surprise that if there’s blood in your eye (which is typically less serious than it seems), it might look red.
We’re not talking about you bleeding from your eye because of an injury—that’s obviously serious, and you should see a doctor ASAP. Instead, this is about a red patch in your eye known as a subconjunctival hemorrhage, and it’s not as dire as it sounds, Dr. Massaro-Giordano says.
A subconjunctival hemorrhage happens when a blood vessel in your eye ruptures and the blood spreads over your conjunctiva, according to the Mayo Clinic. Your conjunctiva can’t absorb blood very quickly, so the blood just hangs out for a bit, usually appearing as a red blotch on the white of your eye. “It looks a lot worse than it is,” Dr. Massaro-Giordano says.
You might be like, Excuse me, I would know if something, like, stabbed me in the eye and made it bleed, so what’s the deal? Although some sort of obvious trauma to your eye can cause this, you might also wind up with a subconjunctival hemorrhage for a more innocuous reason. As it turns out, a lot of different things can burst a blood vessel in your eye, including violent coughing, powerful sneezing, vomiting, otherwise straining in some way, and rubbing your eye too much, the Mayo Clinic says.
The good news is that a subconjunctival hemorrhage doesn’t usually affect your vision or actually hurt. At the most, you might experience some scratchiness on the surface of your eye, and eye drops might help with that for the one to two weeks it usually takes for your eye to absorb the blood. See your eye doctor if that doesn’t help or if you’re experiencing symptoms beyond scratchiness, like pain.
6. Red eyes are one of many possible symptoms of eyelid inflammation.
You probably don’t give much thought to your eyelids when they’re doing their job seamlessly. But you’ll definitely start to notice them if you get blepharitis, which is eyelid inflammation that can make your lids red, irritated, itchy, and crusty. Blepharitis can also make your actual eyes look red, according to the Mayo Clinic.
There are a bunch of different reasons why you can develop blepharitis. Perhaps you have a bacterial infection, your makeup isn’t sitting well with your eyes, or the glands in your eyelids that pump oil into your tear film are plugged up, like an ocular traffic jam of sorts.
Luckily, you can usually clear this up on your own by holding a warm compress over your eyes for several minutes to loosen up crust, calm inflammation, and even possibly unplug those glands. If that doesn’t help, talk to your doctor. They might recommend further treatment, like antibiotic drops for infection or steroid eye drops for inflammation.
7. Damage to your corneas (the clear, dome-shaped layers on the front of each of your eyes) can cause red eyes, too.
Get ready to squirm a little, because some pretty gnarly (but ultimately treatable) stuff can happen to your delicate corneas. That includes a corneal abrasion, which is a scratch, and a corneal ulcer, which is an infection-induced sore, Dr. Movsisyan says.
You can wind up with a corneal abrasion if you get dust, dirt, sand, or some other kind of matter in your eye, according to the Mayo Clinic. As you can imagine, your eyeballs do not appreciate this kind of intrusion, so this can result in pain, grittiness, tearing, redness, sensitivity to light, and even a headache. Luckily, corneal abrasions often heal in a day or two, and doing things like rinsing your eye with clean water or a saline solution might help with the discomfort. If it’s really bothering you, your doctor may recommend antibiotic eye drops or steroid eye drops to lower your risk of infection and reduce inflammation.
A corneal ulcer tends to be a little more serious and happens because an infection creates an open sore on your eye. If you have a corneal ulcer, you’ll likely have bloodshot eyes, blurred vision, itching and discharge, sensitivity to light, painful and watery eyes, and a white patch on your cornea, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. “This can be sight-threatening if it’s not caught and treated,” Dr. Movsisyan says.
Treatment of your corneal ulcer depends on the cause, but your doctor may prescribe antibiotic or antiviral drops, as well as corticosteroid drops to fight inflammation. Again, this could threaten your eyesight, so see your doctor ASAP if you think you might have a corneal ulcer.
If you’re dealing with mysteriously red eyes that last more than a few days, it’s really a good idea to check in with an eye doctor, Dr. Movsisyan says.
Maybe you’ve been pulling all-nighters at your laptop for a week and know that’s what’s behind your red eyes, in which case, cool (and also rest your eyes, like, now). But if you’ve been dealing with red eyes for more than a few days and you’re not sure why, see your doctor. That’s especially true if you’re having other symptoms, too. “Optometrists and ophthalmologists can use microscopes to carefully examine your eyes, figure out what is causing the redness, and treat accordingly,” Dr. Movsisyan says.