A stubborn itch can be annoying, and we instinctively know that relief comes from finally scratching it into submission. But when that itch is in your eyes, relief is harder to come by. You can’t really scratch your eyeball (at least, we certainly don’t recommend it), so what’s there to be done for the itch you just can’t scratch?
Itchy eyes, also called ocular pruritus, is a common condition often related to allergies. But allergies are not the only cause. Below, we’ll discuss the other causes of itchy eyes, the symptoms to watch out for and how to soothe that prickling itchiness so your eyes can function at their best.
Itchy eye symptoms
The first and most prominent symptom of itchy eyes is in the name: eyes that itch. But often there are other signs that accompany it, including:
- Red, watery eyes
- Clear, mucus-like discharge
- Swollen eyes and eyelids
- A burning sensation
- Feeling like an object is stuck in one or both of your eyes
Your symptoms may be worse during the day and improve through the night as you sleep, when your eyes remain closed and at rest for hours at a time. Although you might be more aware of your itchy eyes at night as you’re trying to fall asleep when there’s nothing to distract you from the discomfort.
What causes itchy eyes?
When your eyes are uncomfortably itchy, you’re probably thinking mostly about how to make the itching stop. However, determining the reason why your eyes are itchy can lead to the most effective treatment for you.
Itchy eyes are often related to conjunctivitis – which is inflammation of the conjunctiva, or the clear membranous lining that covers your eyeball and the inside of your eyelids – but plenty of other factors can contribute.
If you have seasonal allergies (hay fever) or other environmental allergies, you’ve likely experienced itchy eyes. Allergies are often the most common cause behind itchy eyes. Exposure to allergens causes your immune system to release histamine, which enlarges and irritates the delicate blood vessels in your eyes, leading to itching and redness.
Most allergic reactions result in some form of eye inflammation. This inflammation causes an itchy, scratchy, even burning sensation on or around the eyeball. Allergic conjunctivitis, a type of pink eye, is a common outcome, and can usually be treated at home.
Dry eye disease
Itchy eyes are closely linked to a condition known as dry eye disease. With dry eye, the tears that normally keep your eyes moist are no longer able to do so for a number of reasons. Your eyes become very dry, leading to itching, redness and pain.
Eye infection and inflammation
Sometimes, itchy eyes can be a sign that something more is going on with your eye health. Blepharitis is an inflammation of your eyelids caused by either an overabundance of bacteria on your eyelids or eyelashes, or clogged and irritated oil glands around your eyes.
Other forms of conjunctivitis, unrelated to allergic reactions, also frequently contribute to itchy eyes. Conjunctivitis can develop in the aftermath of viral or bacterial infections and illnesses, like the common cold, the flu and COVID-19.
Using contact lenses without properly cleaning them or regularly changing them out for a new pair can lead to irritation of the conjunctiva. Also called contact lens-induced papillary conjunctivitis, this condition causes red, itchy, swollen eyes. There may also be visible bumps on the inside of the upper eyelid. This condition can be improved through proper contact lens care and managed with antihistamines. Only wear contact lenses if you have a prescription and get an evaluation to ensure your contacts fit properly and will not irritate your eyes.
Recovery after eye surgery
Your eyes may itch as they heal from cataract surgery or LASIK eye surgery. Many patients experience a gritty feeling like sand, in their eyes. This eye itch usually goes away completely within a few weeks or months after surgery. If it persists beyond that, you’ll want to speak with your ophthalmologist.
Focusing on one thing for an extended period of time – a digital screen, the road in front of your car as you drive or the book you’re trying to read in dim lighting – forces our eyes to work overtime. They can become strained and start to burn, itch and hurt. Make sure you’re regularly taking time to rest your eyes during your workday or your road trip, and that you have proper light for reading. Practice the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds to focus on something at least 20 feet away.
Exposure to irritants
Your eyes are exposed to the air everywhere you go. Depending on your environment, they’ll encounter dust, wind and smoke, all of which can cause irritation, dryness and, yes, itching. This also applies to what you put on or around your eyes, including cosmetics and lotion. This type of reaction is called contact dermatitis or eyelid dermatitis.
Sometimes, itchy eyes are caused by a foreign object stuck in your eye – sand, dirt and other tiny particles can become embedded very easily. Avoid rubbing or touching your eye at all if this is the case. Instead, try blinking and rolling your eyes to naturally flush the object out.
Certain medications like antihistamines, decongestants, birth control pills and acne medicine can exacerbate dry eyes, making them itch.
You can also experience negative reactions to other eye medications like prostaglandin analogs (used in the treatment of glaucoma) and eye drops with preservative ingredients.
Eczema and rosacea
People with eczema (atopic dermatitis) or rosacea may experience eye problems related to these conditions. Eczema and rosacea can develop on the eyelids and cause inflammation of the conjunctiva. This is known as atopic keratoconjunctivitis, or ocular rosacea in those with rosacea, and it presents with itchy, swollen and red eyes.
Are itchy eyes a sign of COVID-19?
In very rare cases, red, itchy, watery eyes can be an initial symptom of COVID-19. However, COVID-19 may cause you to develop viral conjunctivitis as you recover. Viral conjunctivitis is a condition in which your eyes itch, burn, turn red and have a watery discharge.
Home remedies for itchy eyes
Itchy eyes can drive you crazy. Thankfully there are plenty of quick, simple solutions to calm the itch. Some work right away, and others can take a few days to reach their full effect. Be patient if you don’t get immediate relief.
Don’t rub your eyes
It can be extremely tempting, but try to resist touching your itchy eyes. Even though it seems to be the most immediate way to get rid of your ocular itch, rubbing your eyes can actually make things much worse, especially if a foreign object is causing the itch in your eyes. You may end up scratching your cornea, which can increase your risk for other, more serious eye infections.
Apply a cool compress
A washcloth soaked in cool water and placed over your eyes can provide immediate relief from itching and help calm irritation. Sometimes a few days of regularly applying cool compresses is the only treatment needed.
Lubricating eye drops (also called artificial tears) and over-the-counter allergy eye drops can be helpful for dry eye. Avoid over-the-counter drops that are formulated specifically to get rid of eye redness, as they may irritate your eyes even more. An eye doctor can also recommend prescription eye drop options for itchy eyes.
Rinse your eyes
If harsh irritants like pollen and dander are clinging to your eyelids or eyelashes and aggravating your eyes, remove these irritants with an eye wash. Use warm, clean water to gently rinse off your closed eyelids and eyelashes.
Take allergy medication as directed, or try alternative treatments
Antihistamines can either help or hurt your itchy eyes. It’s different for everyone. If antihistamines are only making your itchy eyes worse by causing your eyes to dry out, ask your doctor about other types of antihistamines or alternatives to traditional allergy treatment. Or connect with an allergist.
When to talk to a doctor about itchy eyes
Most of the time, itchy eyes will get better in 2-5 days with at-home remedies. But if your condition doesn’t respond to any of the treatments listed above, schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor.
Your primary care doctor may refer you to optometry or ophthalmology for more specialized eye care.
Visit a doctor right away if:
- There is thick green or yellow discharge coming from one or both of your eyes
- One or both eyes swell shut
- You experience sudden vision changes, like blurred vision
- Your eyes become extremely sensitive to light
- You develop severe eye pain
Don’t settle for itchy eyes
You don’t have to accept “minor” eye problems as a part of life or aging, and you don’t have to live with itchy eyes.
While itchy eyes are often simply an annoyance, they can also be a sign that something more is going on with your eyes. If your itchy eyes are stubborn, recur frequently and interfere with your daily life, it’s a good idea to have them looked at by a doctor.
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