Warning Signs That Your Red Eye Could Be Serious

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Most of the time, red appearing or bloodshot eyes is a short-lived condition that disappears on its own. While many causes of red eyes are not dangerous, sometimes this can signal a serious condition. The following danger signs could be indications that your eye redness should be evaluated by a medical professional.

close up of bloodshot eye
Dimitri Otis Collection/Stone / Getty Images

Blurry Vision

Blurry vision is a symptom of many neurological disorders, as well as conditions that affect the eyes. If you have blurry vision with eye redness, this combination may be caused by a serious eye problem. An autoimmune disorder, severe infections, and edema (swelling) are some of the causes of a red eye with blurred vision.

You should get a prompt medical evaluation if you are having these symptoms.

Pain

Conjunctivitis, a common viral infection, often referred to as "pink eye" may cause discomfort or scratchiness of the eye, but not extreme pain.

Conditions that cause significant eye pain that may also involve redness of the eye include keratitis, a corneal ulcer, iridocyclitis, acute open-angle glaucoma, or acute angle-closure glaucoma.

Severe eye pain should always be evaluated as soon as possible—eye damage can occur in a short period of time. For example, a corneal ulcer caused by a bacteria called Pseudomonas can advance to a blinding eye infection within 48 hours if not treated.

Photophobia

Photophobia, which is extreme sensitivity to light, is common with migraines and after head injuries. Along with eye redness, it can also be a symptom of eye irritation, inflammation, or any type of damage to the eye.

Light sensitivity is a general symptom that occurs when the cornea (the clear covering in front of your eye) is irritated, such as from a corneal abrasion or corneal ulcer.

It can also be caused by iritis, an inflammatory disorder of the eye in which the ciliary muscle behind the iris becomes inflamed and begins to spasm, causing the eye to feel sensitive to light. It can be caused by an autoimmune disease, a reaction to a corneal abrasion, trauma, or ulcer, or it may be idiopathic (without an identifiable cause).

Colored Halos

Colored halos are a symptom of cataracts, corneal edema, and acute closed-angle glaucoma. These conditions can also cause redness of the eyes, but that is not always the case.

When you have swelling in your eye, the cornea becomes thicker. As it thickens, it also becomes cloudy. When this occurs, light scatters and we see halos.

This can be caused by a chronic disease process, or it can develop rapidly. You should see a healthcare professional if are seeing halos around lights.

Discharge

If you have any fluid, pus, or blood in or around your eye, this could be due to a serious infection or a result of trauma. Sometimes, bleeding can occur even without trauma if you are taking a blood thinner or if you have a bleeding disorder. Get medical attention right away if you have any type of discharge around your eye.

When to See an Eye Healthcare Provider

If you have red eyes accompanied by any of the warning signs above, call your eye healthcare provider. Seeking medical treatment at the first sign of a problem can help prevent more serious issues and preserve your vision.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the most common causes of red eye?

    Some common causes of red eye include:

    If you're experiencing additional symptoms, including pain or discomfort, make an appointment with your ophthalmologist to help determine the cause. Seek medical treatment immediately for an eye injury.

  • How can you treat red eyes?

    You can treat minor cases of redness and irritation with rest, over-the-counter eye drops, gently washing eyelids, and cool compresses over the eyes. If you have additional symptoms or redness persists, see your eye healthcare provider.

  • What causes eye redness when you wake up?

    Eye redness in the morning may be caused by dry eyes. While you sleep, your eyes stop making tears to lubricate your eyes. Your eyes may get particularly dry at night if you have dry eye syndrome or blepharitis, or if your eyes don't close completely as you're sleeping.

5 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.
  1. Uveitis. National Institutes of Health. National Eye Institute.

  2. Upadhyay MP, Srinivasan M, Whitcher JP. Diagnosing and managing microbial keratitis. Community Eye Health. 2015;28(89):3–6.PMID: 26435583

  3. Digre KB, Brennan KC. Shedding light on photophobiaJ Neuroophthalmol. 2012;32(1):68–81. doi:10.1097/WNO.0b013e3182474548

  4. Cleveland Clinic. Red eye.

  5. American Academy of Opthalmology. Why are my eyes bloodshot when I wake up?

Additional Reading
  • R. Douglasss Cullom, Jr., Benjamin Chang, The Wills Eye Manual Office and Emergency Diagnosis and Treatment of Eye Disease, 2nd edition. Rev. ed. of: Wills Eye Hospital Office and Emergency Room Diagnosis and Treatment of Eye Disease, 1990. ISBN 0-397-51380-1. Chapter Differential Diagnosis of Ocular Symptoms, Pages 1-6 and Differential Diagnosis of Ocular Signs; Pages 7-17.

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.