September 18, 2015

What causes red eyes?

Sometimes your eyes can become red or pink and feel itchy, dry, irritated, or watery. There are many different possible causes of red eye, some of which require immediate attention.

Dry Eye Syndrome
Dry Eye Syndrome is the most common cause of ocular discomfort and redness. In general, people’s tear chemistry changes as they age. This imbalance can result in discomfort, burning sensation, a gritty feeling and even watery eyes. All of these symptoms may be associated with “dry eye syndrome” (even if your eyes water too much!). This is often compounded by air conditioning, heating, prolonged computer use, or contact lens wear. In some cases, eyelid infections can interfere with the eye’s ability to make tears. Certain medications can also inhibit tear production. Diagnosis of the cause of the dry eye by a doctor of optometry will allow a treatment plan that can bring relief.

If your eyes are itchy, water, and have white stringy mucous in them, chances are they have been exposed to something that you are allergic to. Pollen and dust from plants, or debris from house pets will often trigger an allergic reaction and this reaction will often worsen during certain seasons. Besides avoiding these allergic triggers, the best treatment for ocular allergy is prescription eye drops. Beware of cosmetic cures like Visine drops that only remove the redness. They don’t actually stop the allergic reaction and may make your eyes even redder when you stop using them. There are often better solutions that can be recommended by your optometrist.

Contact Lenses
Contact lens sensitivity has become one of the most common causes of red eye. Overuse of lenses, use of non-disposable lenses, poor lens cleaning, and sensitivity to contact lens solutions can all cause a condition called keratoconjunctivitis. Besides pain, discomfort, and light sensitivity, this inflammation can cause scarring on the eye that may prevent the further use of contacts. It may even cause permanent vision damage. Annual contact lens health evaluations with your optometrist will allow this problem to be diagnosed quickly and treated. Contact lenses are medical devices that must be used as prescribed to allow many years of safe use.

The bacteria and viruses that we come into contact with every day can also make our eyes red. A common cold virus can quickly spread to the eyes of every person in a household, school, or place of work. Although this type of infection will resolve on its own just like a normal cold would, it can cause a lot of discomfort in the meantime and is very contagious. Bacteria that live on the skin can sometimes spread to the eyes or eyelids as well. Let untreated, bacterial ocular infections can cause serious consequences. Fortunately, there is a wide range of antibiotic treatments that can be used to clear a bacterial infection. While viral infections cannot be cured with antibiotics there are treatments available to make your eyes more comfortable until the virus runs its course.

Having something poke or get into the eye, even if it happened a long time ago, can cause recurrent redness. The surface layer of the cornea, the front window of the eye, can heal quickly from scratches and foreign bodies, but sometimes the healed area is weaker and more susceptible to injury than the rest of the cornea. If this happens, the eye can be re-injured by the simple act of blinking. The use of special contact lenses and eye drops can allow proper healing to occur.

Other conditions
Less commonly, redness can be the early sign of an underlying health problem. High blood pressure, auto immune disease, and rheumatoid arthritis are just a few types of conditions that may manifest as a red eye. A comprehensive eye examination by your optometrist can help determine the source of the disruption and a course of action.

Red eye relief
There are as many treatments for red eyes as there are reasons for getting it. Proper diagnosis of the cause is the first step towards getting proper treatment and allowing comfortable, healthy vision.

The optometrists of eyeDOCS have the latest equipment and training needed to monitor your health. We also accept emergency patients and with 12 optometrist on staff we can often accommodate these patients faster than walk-in clinics and emergency rooms.


About the Author
Dr. Shawn Charland

Dr. Shawn Charland graduated from the University of Waterloo, School of Optometry in 1999. He has been practicing optometry since and joined the eyeDOCS team in 2006 and became a partner in 2007. For more information about Dr. Charland and his specialized interests relating to optometry, click here.