11 Reasons You Have Puffy and Swollen Eyes—And How To Treat Them

Sleep problems, your period, perfume, and diet soda are a few causes of puffy, swollen eyes. 

Cropped shot of an elderly woman's face with puffiness under her eyes and wrinkles

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Waking up with puffy, swollen eyes is a major bummer—especially if you need to arrive at work looking bright and alert, or you're tired of masking the puffiness with makeup. Even worse is when the puff is accompanied by dark circles, redness, undereye bags, and/or irritation.

Why does it happen? Many things can contribute to eye puffiness, but the underlying cause has to do with fluid accumulation, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. For unknown reasons, fluid has collected around your eyes and the surrounding skin tissue. This tissue is among the thinnest in your body, so any swelling there is easy to see and hard to hide.

"Some of the causes of this fluid retention are relatively harmless and unrelated to a more serious issue, such as not getting enough sleep or consuming foods with too much sodium. Other times, the puffiness is a sign of something that needs to be addressed by a doctor, like an infection," said Randy McLaughlin, OD, a professor of optometry at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center.

To help you uncover what's behind your puffy eyes, Health spoke with a team of doctors, including a dermatologist, ophthalmologist, allergist, and optometrist. Read on for the reasons why fluid accumulation happens and how to combat it.

You Have Allergies

Allergies are a common cause of eye irritation and puffy eyes. What you eat, the clothes you wear, when you shower, and other things in your home can unintentionally make them worse.

For example, up to 20% of people with pollen allergies also react when eating raw apples, cantaloupe, or tomatoes, according to a 2020 study published in the journal Clinical and Translational Allergy. Known as oral allergy syndrome, it is caused by a cross-reaction to proteins in food that have a similar structure to allergens.

Allergens can also cling to clothes, especially ones made from rough or sticky fabrics like wool. Pollen, dust, and pet dander also stick to your hair and skin. Showering before bed and putting on clean pajamas can help to relieve allergy eyes. Be sure to also change your sheets often, especially if you have dust mite allergies.

If you have allergies and wear contacts, be aware that soft contact lenses can absorb airborne irritants like pollen and smoke. If cleaning your contacts on a regular basis doesn't help, consider switching to daily disposable lenses.

Some good news: If your puffy eyes are caused by allergies, antihistamine eye drops can clear them up almost instantly.

You Have Pink Eye

If you have pink eye, you would think you'd know it—this super contagious eye condition usually causes the mucus membranes that line your eyes to turn pinkish-red and swell up, releasing discharge as well.

But sometimes it's hard to tell, especially if your pink eye—aka conjunctivitis—is caused by a virus rather than a bacterial infection. Viral pink eye is often accompanied by a watery, clear discharge and can be relatively mild. Bacterial pink eye, on the other hand, is characterized by a yellowish-green discharge, and there might be a lot of it, according to the American Optometric Association.

"If your pink eye is triggered by a viral infection, you might also have cold symptoms," explained Kira Manusis, MD, an ophthalmologist at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, in an email to Health. "In such cases, it can be associated with an upper respiratory infection," Dr. Manusis said. "It often starts in one eye and spreads to the other."

There's a third form of pink eye that can cause eye puffiness too: allergy-related pink eye, which tends to affect both eyes at the same time and typically causes watery discharge and itching in the corners of your eyes. "If you also experience a runny nose or sneezing when you have pink eye, it's probably allergy-related," Dr. Manusis noted.

"Pink eye doesn't come with many warning signs," explained Dr. McLaughlin, "but once you notice symptoms, it's important to take special care." If it appears to be bacterial, check in with a healthcare provider about getting a prescription for antibacterial eye drops to speed healing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the viral pink eye tends to clear up on its own within five to 10 days, while allergy-related pink eye can be treated through avoidance of known allergens and antihistamine drops. "If you notice changes in your vision or the color and puffiness don't go away, see your doctor," advised Dr. McLaughlin.

You Keep In Your Contact Lenses Too Long

Leave your contacts in for too long, and it could leave you with puffy eyes. A contact lens is "a barrier to the eye," explained Dr. McLaughlin. This barrier prevents oxygen from reaching the eyes, which can make your corneas swell. If you sleep in your lenses, you're putting more stress on your corneas and making the swelling even more pronounced.

So although it can be inconvenient, the best advice is to make sure you take them out before hitting the sack. Instead of waiting until the last sleepy minute, one trick is to remove your contact lenses in the late afternoon or evening—so you don't forget or get lazy, doze off in them, and wake up with puffy eyes.

You've Been Crying

Why do your eyes get puffy when you cry? The tears that stream down your cheeks after an emotional sob session are different than the kind that flow when your eyes are trying to wash out dust or debris, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

However, it's unclear how emotional tears are more likely than reflex tears to cause eye puffiness. It could be that emotional tears contain stress hormones that are linked to water retention. Another theory is the abundance of emotional tears can overwhelm the lacrimal drainage system causing the tissue around the eye to swell.

"It is thought that tears secreted while crying have a slightly different composition in addition to a different hormonal response," Dr. Manusis explained. It doesn't help that after crying, you might rub your eyes to dry them or mask the tears, which also puffs your eyes up.

To de-puff after watching a tearjerker flick or getting misty-eyed at a wedding, apply a cold compress to your eyes for a few minutes. A splash of cool water and a dab of concealer can also help you hide that you were crying—but concealer can't do much for actually making your eyes less puffy, unfortunately.

You Consume Too Much Sodium

The sodium and the puffy-eye connection are simple: Sodium causes your body to hold onto fluid, and that includes the tissues surrounding your eyes as well. Sodium is the main mineral in salt, so salty foods such as chips and cold cuts are major swollen-eye culprits. But sodium is also hidden in tons of packaged products, including bread, soup, and frozen meals.

People who consume foods containing MSG can also find themselves dealing with fluid retention. MSG is a flavor enhancer added to some products, and though it doesn't have as much sodium as table salt, sodium is the main ingredient of MSG that can "increase water retention and puffiness around the eyes," explained Debra Jaliman, MD, a New York City–based dermatologist, in an email to Health.

To get rid of the puff, cut back your sodium intake. How much salt is too much? "It varies from person to person," said Dr. McLaughlin, "but the CDC suggests that most adults stick to less than 2,300 mg of sodium daily."

You Drink Too Much Alcohol

Excessive alcohol intake causes all kinds of body issues, including bloating all over. So it makes sense that drinking too much contributes to puffy eyes as well. "Alcohol can lower an anti-diuretic hormone in your body, which causes puffiness," said Dr. McLaughlin.

Pounding back one too many can cause swollen eyes in an indirect way. Although alcohol is a depressant, research from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism shows it actually interferes with sleep, making us toss and turn or wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to go back to dreamland. A poor night's sleep can cause fluid retention, leading to inflated eyes.

To avoid fluid retention and keep alcohol from setting up that anti-diuretic effect, try sticking to no more than one drink per night if you're female and two if you're male. These are the CDC guidelines for moderate drinking, but if you still notice eye bloat, consider giving up the booze for good and limiting it to special occasions only.

Artificial Sweeteners Are Part of Your Diet

You may be surprised to learn that artificial sweeteners may be behind your puffy eyes. Artificial sweeteners, like saccharin, aspartame, and sucralose, can be difficult to process and cause water retention, according to research published in the journal Appetite.

When we lay down to sleep at night, the excess fluid can pool in our face and eyelids, leading to eyelid puffiness. Cutting out artificial sweeteners may relieve the problem.

You're Sensitive to Fragrance

Allergens like pollen and pet dander aren't the only airborne particles that can cause puffy eyes. Perfumes and scented products can also contribute to puffiness—because a person has an allergy to the fragrance or they simply have sensitive eyes.

"When choosing products, try to use products that are fragrance-free," said Dr. Jaliman. When you spritz on perfume in particular, aim it away from your face to keep scented particles as far from your eyes as possible.

Fragrance sensitivity is nothing new: A March 2017 study published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports found that exposure to fragrances can lead to a host of negative reactions, like migraines and difficulty breathing. And 14% of people in the study reported having eye issues when they were within smelling distance of certain scents.

You Don't Get Enough Sleep

Puffy eyelids and under-eye bags are a telltale sign of sleep deprivation, according to a study published in the journal Sleep.

Researchers showed 40 observers photos of people who were either sleep-deprived or well-rested. Observers rated levels of fatigue-related facial cues. Not surprisingly, people in the sleep-deprived photos were rated as having more swelling around the eyes, dark circles under the eyes, redder eyes, and droopier eyelids.

Everyone suffers from the occasional poor night's sleep, but if you frequently have trouble sleeping, talk to your healthcare provider. Chronic sleep deprivation can have adverse health effects.

You're Getting Older

You eat well, avoid alcohol, and always score a healthy 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. Yet your undereye area sometimes resembles a tiny pillow. What's going on? Some of us are simply genetically prone to eye puffiness, said Dr. McLaughlin. And this inherited predisposition tends to not show up until later in life, well into your 30s or 40s—though it can strike at younger ages as well.

"Here's what happens: As you age, fat deposits that typically support the eyes begin to sag, causing a puffing effect," said Dr. McLaughlin. The tissue and muscles surrounding the eyes weaken as well, adding to the swollen appearance. Puffiness caused by genetics and age isn't usually a medical concern. "It's reasonable to say you're predisposed to having puffy eyes. I've seen people whose skin hasn't aged a bit, but it can be the other way too," Dr. McLaughlin added.

That said, there are still things you can do to reduce their appearance and slow the process down, such as not smoking. Eye creams can keep eye skin firmer for longer if used as a preventative treatment. Blepharoplasty, or eyelid surgery, can remove undereye bags, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

Your Period Is on The Way

You probably know how bloated you feel during the week before your period and through those first few heavy-flow days. That same waterlogged effect can leave your eyes swollen as well.

It has to do with hormone fluctuations that occur with premenstrual syndrome (PMS). According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, changes in estrogen and progesterone cause fluid retention all through your body—including your peepers. "While that time of the month isn't a puffy-eye trigger for all women, it can contribute to swelling in some," said Dr. McLaughlin.

The good news: When your period nears its end, the swelling should subside, whether it's around your eyes or elsewhere.

Summing Up

Puffy eyes are common and persistent beauty challenges for many people. They can occur because of a lack of sleep, allergies, or aging.

In addition to treating the root cause of eyelid swelling, there are a few things you can do to reduce eye puffiness. Applying a cool compress—like a cold washcloth, cool tea bag, or cucumber slices—to the eyes for a few minutes can help to de-puff eyelids.

Consider adding potassium-rich foods like bananas or leafy greens to your diet. According to the National Institutes of Health, the mineral helps to relieve water retention. And drink lots of water, too—this helps to flush out excess fluid your system is holding on to.

Topical eyelid treatments can also help to relieve puffy eyes. Look for in an eye cream include chamomile, cucumber, and arnica, ingredients with properties that may reduce inflammation and tighten the skin. Dr. Jalimon also suggested looking into eye creams and serums with caffeine, which can reduce the appearance of swelling.

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