Top 6 Causes of Eye Irritation

Is it allergies or something else?

Irritation in the eyes is a common problem. If your eyes are red and uncomfortable, you'll want to know how to get relief. It's usually a temporary discomfort that's not serious, but you should also know when to worry about eye irritation.

This article goes over the six most common causes of irritation in the eyes: dry eye syndrome, pink eye, eye allergies, blepharitis, a corneal ulcer, and trichiasis.

You'll learn when to see a healthcare provider for eye irritation as well as how it can be treated.

Six common reasons for eye irritation

Verywell / Jessica Olah

Dry Eye Syndrome

Eye irritation is commonly caused by dry eyes. Dry eye syndrome happens when the tear glands do not make the right amount of tears or make low-quality tears.

If your eyes sting or feel dry and scratchy, you may have dry eye syndrome. A lack of tears and moisture can also cause blurry vision.

How Common Is Dry Eye?

Dry eye syndrome is very common, especially as you get older. By the age of 65, you'll make 65% fewer tears than you did when you were 18.

Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye)

Irritation in the eyes can also be caused by infections.

Conjunctivitis, more commonly known as "pink eye," is inflammation of the clear membrane that lines the inside of the eyelid and covers the white part of the eye (conjunctiva).

The most noticeable symptom of conjunctivitis is eyes that look red or pink. The small blood vessels in the eye get inflamed and make the conjunctiva get bigger, which gives a pink or red tint to the white of the eye.

Pink eye is usually thought of as a highly contagious illness that's caused by a virus, especially in kids. However, bacteria and fungi can also cause pink eye.

Treatment for pink eye can include home remedies, over-the-counter (OTC) products, and prescription medications.

Eye Allergies

If you tend to have eye irritation at certain times of the year, allergies could be to blame. Many people with eye irritation have seasonal eye allergies.

Eye allergies can be very uncomfortable and can get in the way of your usual daily activities. The symptoms of eye allergies can include watery eyes, vision changes, and intense eye itching. 

Like other allergies, eye allergy treatment means figuring out what your triggers are and avoiding them. The "trigger" is the substance (like pollen) that causes you to have symptoms.

For example, if pollen irritates your eyes, you might try to stay inside on days when the pollen count is high, or during the times of day when pollen is at the highest levels.

Keeping your home's windows closed and using quality filters on air conditioners can also help limit eye-irritating triggers.

Blepharitis

Eye irritation can also be caused by specific eye disorders.

Blepharitis is inflammation of the eyelid. It commonly causes red, crusty eyelids in kids and adults.

If you have blepharitis, your symptoms will probably be worst when you first wake up in the morning. You may find flakes of debris on your pillow or stuck to your eyelashes. 

If you don't wash your face (and eyes) often or well enough, you might be more likely to get blepharitis.

Corneal Ulcer

Irritation of the eyes can also happen if the eye is injured.

A corneal ulcer is an erosion or an open sore on the surface of the clear dome-like structure on the front part of the eye called the cornea. The sores are common in people who wear contact lenses—especially if they leave them in overnight.

Corneal ulcers can cause intense eye pain, light sensitivity, and redness. Some people feel constant eye irritation from a corneal ulcer.

You'll need to see a provider for corneal ulcer treatment. You might need to take an antibiotic, use special eye drops, or use OTC pain relievers. You will probably have to stop wearing contacts until the ulcer heals.

Trichiasis

Eye irritation sometimes comes from the eyelashes rather than the eyeball. Your eyelashes can be very coarse and can scratch your eye when you blink.

Your eyelashes can also grow in the wrong direction—a condition called trichiasis.

Trichiasis can be subtle—you might not notice it when you're looking at your eyes in the mirror. Even if you can't see it, you might feel irritation in your eyes.

It might not seem like a major problem but trichiasis can cause real damage to the cornea.

The treatment for trichiasis is to remove the eyelash or eyelashes that are causing the damage. However, since the eyelash growth cycle is about two to three months long, the troublesome eyelashes might grow back.

Summary

Irritation in your eyes can have many causes. Depending on what is causing your symptoms, eye irritation treatments can range from using medications to avoiding triggers.

If you're having constant eye irritation that's not getting better, it's important to tell your provider. Some causes of eye irritation can damage your eyes the longer they go on.

While it could have a simple cause, the problem may not resolve until you get the right treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you relieve eye irritation?

    Treating eye irritation depends on what's causing it. For example, if you have dry eyes or allergies, over-the-counter artificial tears may help. An infection would require prescription drops.

  • How do you treat eye irritation from contact lenses?

    Remove your contacts and rinse them with contact lens solution to remove any particles. If that does not help, keep your contacts out and check with your eye healthcare provider.

  • What causes eye irritation when blinking?

    Eye irritation that's worse when blinking could be caused by a particle in your eye. Other conditions may include dry eyes and blepharitis. If this doesn't get better, see a healthcare provider.

  • Can COVID cause irritated eyes?

    COVID-19 can cause eye symptoms, including soreness or irritation. Some people with COVID actually get conjunctivitis.

  • What causes irritated eyes after getting eyelash extensions?

    Anything that is near or on your eyes can cause irritation, especially if it's a foreign object. Eyelash extensions can cause eye irritation and may damage the eyes. You can also have an allergic reaction to lash extensions, which could cause eye irritation.

  • Can Botox cause eye irritation?

    Botox can cause eye irritation if the injection is near your eye. There have also been cases of dry eye syndrome related to Botox.

  • What's the difference between irritated eyes and pink eye?

    Pink eye is an infection that causes eye irritation. There are also other causes of eye irritation that aren't from infections.

  • Is it OK to use eye drops daily?

    It depends on the type of eye drop. Follow the directions on the package or provided to you by your prescriber. If you find you need to use drops for longer or more often that recommended, you may need a different kind of treatment.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  10. AJMC. “Sore Eyes” Reported as Most Significant Ocular Symptom of COVID-19.

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By Troy Bedinghaus, OD
Troy L. Bedinghaus, OD, board-certified optometric physician, owns Lakewood Family Eye Care in Florida. He is an active member of the American Optometric Association.