What Causes a Sharp Pain in the Eye?

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Feeling a sudden, sharp pain in your eye—which can also be described as stabbing pain, burning, or shooting pain—isn't just uncomfortable; it's unsettling. There are a range of different causes for this type of eye pain, from those that are easy to manage to others that are more serious. It's important to know the signs that require a visit to your healthcare provider or emergency medical treatment.

Close-Up Of Woman Rubbing Eyes

Philip Curtis / EyeEm / Getty Images

Symptoms

Though it's possible to experience sharp pain in any part of the eye, here we are talking about pain in the eye and under the eyelid. (This leaves out pain on the eyelid or behind the eye.)

Given that there are many possible causes of this pain, it makes sense that "sharp" can mean different things to different people, including throbbing, aching, burning, or stabbing pain. Frequently, sharp pain is sudden, which makes sense because if there's something wrong with your eye, you'll probably notice it right away.

The key is figuring out if some type of foreign body got into your eye, or if the pain is caused by an underlying health condition.

Common Causes

There are a number of different causes of sharp eye pain. Here are some of the most common.

Foreign Body in the Eye

Sometimes a sudden, sharp pain in your eye happens when something lands on your eye, and your body's natural flushing system—blinking and tears—doesn't get the job done. This could be anything from dust and dirt to something floating in the air or resulting from activities like metalwork and woodworking (both situations in which you should definitely be wearing safety goggles).

If you wear contact lenses, they could also be to blame. In addition to potentially causing an infection, the lenses can fold or move around on your eye, resulting in sharp pain.

And the foreign body doesn't necessarily have to be solid: Liquid irritants—including chemicals—could be the source of pretty serious pain in your eye. If that's the case, it's best to get medical attention as soon as possible.

Dry Eye

When your eyes don't get enough moisture, it can lead to a bunch of different symptoms, including sharp pain.

Specifically, dry eye can make it feel like you have a foreign object in your eye (even if you don't).

Wearing contact lenses, taking certain medications (such as antihistamines, beta-blockers, opiates, and tricyclic antidepressants), or environmental factors (like air-conditioning) can all make the pain worse.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches involve pain on one side of your head, and may include tearing of the eyes, a droopy eyelid, and sharp pain, as well as burning and/or a steady stabbing pain.

Facts About Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are intense headaches that typically feel the worst five or 10 minutes after they start, with the strongest pain lasting between 30 minutes and two hours. Usually, the pain is concentrated on one side of the face—from neck to temple—which often involves the eye.

Scratch on Cornea

A scratch or scrape on the cornea—also referred to as a corneal abrasion—can be the source of sharp pain in your eye.

Fingernails, tree branches, and contact lenses are a few examples of objects that can scratch a cornea. Most of the time, minor scrapes resolve themselves within a few days. However, it is important to have the eye looked at by a healthcare provider because you can get a secondary infection from a scrape or wound.

Glaucoma

If the pain also includes an element of pressure, it could be the sign of angle-closure glaucoma: a condition caused by fluid buildup in the front of the eye, resulting in pressure that damages the optic nerve.

There are two main types of glaucoma:

  • Primary open-angle glaucoma: This happens when fluid does not drain from the eye as it is supposed to, but rarely causes eye pain.
  • Angle-closure glaucoma: This is the painful type of glaucoma, which occurs when the iris is very close to the drainage angle of the eye, which can block proper drainage.

Inflammation

Eye inflammation can also result in sharp eye pain. For example, inflammation of the middle layer of the eyeball (the uvea) is known as uveitis, and in addition to causing pain, it can damage eye tissue, leading to blindness. This can also result in photophobia.

The white part of the eye (the sclera) can also become painful, swollen, and inflamed: a condition known as scleritis, which is often caused by an autoimmune disorder.

Infection

Eye infections—both bacterial and viral—may be the source of eye pain.

Frequently, we cause these ourselves: rubbing or touching our eyes after touching something contaminated. It's also possible for an infection to spread from one part of our body (like our sinuses) to our eye.

One of the best-known eye infections is conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye. It happens when the mucous membranes that line the inner eyelids and surface of the eyeballs (the conjunctiva) become infected via bacteria, a virus, or allergies.

Other examples of viruses that can cause eye infection are herpes zoster (shingles) and herpes simplex.

Treatments

In order to treat eye pain, you must first figure out where it's coming from.

At-Home Treatment

If it feels like something is stuck in your eye, chances are your eye will water a lot and blink to help flush out the object.

Always avoid rubbing your eyes, even though the temptation will be there, because that can cause whatever is in your eye to scratch your cornea and make the pain even worse. And if chemicals have gotten in your eye, wash it as thoroughly as possible with clean water. If you're experiencing any severe pain due to chemicals in your eye, seek medical attention.

If dry eye is behind your sharp pain, using an over-the-counter eye drop may help. However, some eye drops may make your eyes even drier and redder, so it's best to get a recommendation from your healthcare provider before purchasing some.

Tips for Good Eye Hygiene

One of the simplest ways to deal with eye pain is to prevent the conditions that cause it to happen in the first place. Most of this comes down to practicing good eye hygiene, including:

  • Using a clean towel or tissue every time when wiping the face or around the eyes
  • Washing your hands frequently, particularly after coughing, sneezing, or using the toilet
  • Keeping your hands and fingers out of your eyes
  • Avoiding contact lenses when your eyes are infected
  • Not using makeup when your eyes are infected

When to See a Healthcare Provider

You really don't want to take any chances when it comes to your eyes and vision, so if you're experiencing sharp eye pain and you aren't sure what's causing it (or you know it's from an object stuck in your eye that you can't remove yourself), it's time to see a healthcare provider. If you have an infection, like pink eye, a healthcare provider will be able to prescribe the correct medication you need to clear it up.

In some cases, more serious treatment will be needed to deal with the underlying condition causing your eye pain. These could include:

  • Surgical treatments to replace a damaged or scarred cornea with transplanted cells or an entire cornea
  • Laser surgery to improve drainage in the eye in cases of angle-closure glaucoma and/or narrow angles

What Is a Medical Emergency That Requires Immediate Treatment?

Eye pain is always something to take seriously, but it's good to know when you should make an appointment with an ophthalmologist to check in, and when it's a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment. Examples of emergency situations include:

  • Serious eye injury
  • Something stuck in the eye that requires a professional to remove
  • Vomiting
  • A visual sensation of halos around lights
  • A buildup of fluid pressure behind the cornea, causing the cornea to become opaque
  • Signs of bodily infection (such as fever or chills)
  • Blurred vision
  • Bulging eyeballs
  • Inability to move the eyes through their normal range
  • Double vision

Complications

In case you needed one more reason to see a healthcare provider when dealing with eye pain, ignoring that discomfort can lead to some potentially harmful complications.

While there are a variety of causes of sharp eye pain, some can be tied to serious health conditions. So when you decide not to address the pain, you could be dismissing your body's clue that something else is wrong.

For example, when left untreated, orbital cellulitis can lead to more serious conditions like bacteremia (when the bacteria spreads to the bloodstream), endocarditis (when the bacteria infects the heart), visual impairment, and blindness.

A Word From Verywell

It's never a good idea to ignore any type of pain in your eye—not that that's even possible. Like a toothache, eye discomfort is something that can be completely distracting, especially if it impacts your vision.

While in many cases, the source of the pain can be easily identified and taken care of, when in doubt—including when you don't recognize a clear cause of the pain—be sure to consult with your healthcare provider.

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11 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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