6 Eye Symptoms and What They Could Mean

Understand the possible underlying cause of symptoms like redness and itching.

Whether you look like you pulled the world's longest all-nighter or feel so itchy you want to claw your eyeballs out, you shouldn't just slap on a pair of sunglasses and ignore it.

Treating eye issues properly can help you avoid complications, said Stephanie J. Marioneaux, MD, an ophthalmologist with a clinical practice in Chesapeake, VA. "Especially if you have pain, a change in vision, discharge, light sensitivity, or any symptoms that persist, it could be a sign of a serious problem, and you should see an ophthalmologist," Dr. Marioneaux said.

If you are having eye symptoms, decode your eye problem with this guide.

Itchy and Watery

If you are experiencing red eyes that are both itchy and watery, it's probably allergies. According to Johns Hopkins, allergies—also known as allergic conjunctivitis—are a reaction to pollen, pet dander, or something else in your environment. The first step in treatment is to get away from the trigger if possible—whether it's a fluffy cat, a dusty attic, or a park full of ragweed.

Then take an oral antihistamine to halt the immune system reaction, said Tim Mainardi, MD, an allergist with New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Over-the-counter allergy drops may also provide relief, according to Johns Hopkins. You can also ask your healthcare provider about prescription drops. If allergies are a seasonal nuisance for you or create major discomfort, see an allergist for additional treatment.

Thick and Crusty Discharge

If your eyes are red, itchy, and have a thick discharge—you might have conjunctivitis. According to Johns Hopkins, conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, is inflammation from an infection of the outer layer of your eye. Your healthcare provider can do an eye culture by using the discharge from the eye to see if it's viral or bacterial.

The viral variety is "like a common cold in the eye" and is extremely contagious, said Dr. Marioneaux. Individual vials of artificial tears and cold packs will help relieve irritation and dryness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a mild case of bacterial conjunctivitis may go away on its own, but your healthcare provider may also prescribe antibiotic eye drops to speed things up.

Per the CDC, seek care from an ophthalmologist if your symptoms worsen or aren't improving; or if you have moderate to severe pain, light sensitivity, blurred vision, or intense redness.

A Painful Lump

If there's a painful lump at the edge of your lid, that pimple-like bump might be a stye. According to Johns Hopkins, styes are infected glands at the edge of your eyelid; they can be tender and swollen and may cause tearing or crusting of the eye.

To treat a stye, use a warm washcloth to encourage drainage. According to Johns Hopkins, if it doesn't improve with home treatment, see an eye specialist who can prescribe an antibiotic ointment.

A chalazion (a small bump in the eye) may develop from a stye. According to MedlinePlus, a chalazion is caused by a clogged oil gland under the eyelid. "You can feel the bump sticking out through the lid," said Dr. Marioneaux. Warm compresses are also the first line of treatment here. According to MedlinePlus, if a sty or chalazion persists, an ophthalmologist can remove it or inject it with a steroid.

Gritty, Sandy Feeling

If your eye is feeling gritty or sandy, it could be dry eye. According to MedlinePlus, this condition is when the eyes aren't getting enough moisture because they can't maintain healthy tears.

Staring at screens without blinking regularly is a culprit. "If you're not blinking every four seconds, oil doesn't get released, and tears evaporate, leaving the eye dry and irritated," said Dr. Marioneaux. "If your eyes water out of nowhere, that's emergency tears coming to the rescue." Dry eye can also be caused by:

  • Smoking
  • Hormone fluctuations
  • Long-term use of contact lenses
  • Sun exposure
  • Cold medicines

According to MedlinePlus, to treat dry eyes, you should take breaks from intense staring and dampen your eyes with artificial tears. You can also try using a humidifier to moisten the air. It's important to avoid smoke, air conditioning, and direct wind. Don't ignore dry eye because it could lead to scarring or infection of the cornea.

Itchy and Swollen Along the Lash Line

If your eye is red, itchy, and swollen, you may have blepharitis, a chronic condition in which oil glands along the lash line become clogged, or there are too many bacteria on your lash line, according to the National Eye Institute.

Treat it daily by keeping the eyelid clean. "Warm compresses increase blood flow and loosen the oil to help unclog the glands," said Payal Patel, MD, a clinical instructor in the department of ophthalmology at NYU Langone Medical Center, who recommended applying a warm washcloth to the eyelid for one to two minutes three or four times a day.

Blurred Vision After Eye Injury

If you are experiencing blurred vision, sensitivity to light, headache, or feel like there may be something stuck in your eye, it is possible that you may have scratched your cornea (the layer covering the front of your eye), according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Most cornea scratches are minor and can heal on their own, but since a scratched cornea can cause permanent damage, go to an opthalmologist ASAP or go to an ER or urgent care center.

A Quick Review

If you are having any eye symptoms, it is possible you may have allergies, pink eye, a stye, dry eye, blepharitis, or a scratched cornea. Most eye symptoms can heal on their own. But regardless of what the symptoms are, any eye symptoms that don't clear up warrant a call to your ophthalmologist. When it comes to the eye, it is better to have the problem checked out by a professional to avoid any possible complications.

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