When your eyes become itchy and red, you’ll do just about anything to relieve the irritation. But knowing the cause of your itchy eyes can help you find the right treatment and get some relief.
The differences between symptoms of allergy and infection, for example, is important to understand so you don’t make your condition worse.
The following are eight causes of itchy eyes and some possible treatment options, including home remedies and prescription medications.
Causes of itchy eyes
Most of the time, itchy eyes are caused by some type of allergy. An irritating substance (called an allergen) — such as pollen, dust and animal dander — causes the release of compounds called histamines in the tissues around the eyes, which results in itching, redness and swelling.
1. Seasonal allergies
If you get itchy eyes around the same time every year, you may have a seasonal allergy to ragweed or something else that blooms and releases pollen during certain times of year.
One way to tell if you’re dealing with an allergy, as opposed to an eye infection, is that you’ll have other allergic reactions, such as sneezing and nasal congestion.
Allergic symptoms are triggered by histamine, a compound released by cells to defend against allergens. Histamine causes an inflammatory response, and itchy eyes are among the common signs of histamine at work. One way to reduce symptoms is to avoid contact with seasonal allergens. Strategies include:
- Pay attention to local weather reports and stay indoors when pollen counts are high.
- Keep home and car windows closed during pollen season.
- Take showers and wash clothes more frequently to help keep pollen away from your airways.
- Wear a pollen mask when you have to be outside.
- Over-the-counter antihistamine medications can be helpful in controlling symptoms.
If your symptoms are especially serious every year, you may benefit from a prescription allergy medication. Because these medications can take some time to be effective, your doctor may recommend that you start taking them a few weeks prior to the onset of your allergy season.
2. Perennial allergies
Unlike seasonal allergies, perennial allergies are those you may have all year long. Things like mold, dust, and pet dander are among the more common perennial eye allergies.
You also may be allergic to certain products in your home. The contact lens solution you use may be irritating your eyes. Or, the soap or shampoo you use may be the problem.
If environmental allergens have been eliminated as the cause of your itchy eyes, try taking a break from a product that comes in contact with your eyes. It may be a process of elimination that leads to a solution, but it could be well worth your time.
To find out whether you have an allergy, an allergist can administer a skin test for specific allergens. Small amounts of allergens, such as ragweed or pet dander, are administered just under the skin to see if the skin around the injection site shows any kind of reaction. These tests are safe for most children and adults.
In addition to trying to reduce your exposure to an allergen, you can take medications, such as antihistamines or corticosteroids, to help reduce inflammation.
3. Airborne irritants
Some people are particularly sensitive to smoke, diesel exhaust, or even certain perfumes. Avoiding exposure to these irritants is the simplest solution. Soothing eye drops or a cool, damp cloth over your closed eyes may help you feel better fast.
Your eyes are vulnerable to viral, bacterial, and fungal infections — all of which can bring on itchy eyes.
One of the more common eye infections is conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye because the white part of the infected eye turns pink. It’s very contagious and often accompanied by drainage from the affected eye.
Another possible eye infection is called uveitis, an inflammation of the iris — the part of your eye with color. Uveitis can cause eye pain and an extreme sensitivity to light.
Both types of infections should be evaluated and treated by a doctor. Antibiotics may be used to treat conjunctivitis. Steroids also may be necessary. Anti-inflammatory eye drops may be enough to treat uveitis.
In more severe cases, immune-suppressant drugs may be needed. Uveitis, if not treated effectively, can lead to severe vision loss and complications such as glaucoma and cataracts.
5. Dry eye
Tears, which are a combination of water, oil, and mucus, keep your eyes moist and refreshed. For various reasons, your eyes may stop producing enough tears to keep your eyes from getting dry and itchy. One common cause is simply getting older. As you age, tear production tends to wane.
Likewise, conditions such as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis can also lead to fewer tears. Certain medications list dry eyes as a possible side effect. Those include:
- medications that lower blood pressure
- birth control pills
Your eyes can also dry out because tears are evaporating too quickly. If you’ve ever been outside in the wind for a long time or in an environment with very low humidity, you may have noticed your eyes getting dryer and itchier. Sometimes, a blocked tear duct or tear gland leads to dry and itchy eyes.
Treating dry eyes may be as simple as using over-the-counter artificial tears, which are available as drops. Follow the instructions carefully. If you experience chronic dry eyes, see an eye doctor. You may need medicated drops.
Staring at a computer screen for a long time, or trying to read in a poorly lit area, can strain your eyes, causing them to feel itchy and tired. Driving for a long time, especially at night or on a bright, sunny day, can strain your eyes, too.
Eyestrain can also develop if you’re forcing yourself to keep your eyes open and remain awake when you’re tired. For some people, indoor heat or air conditioning can lead to strained, itchy, and irritated eyes.
The best treatment is to simply rest your eyes periodically. If driving is putting a strain on your eyes, pull over and close your eyes. Take a nap or switch drivers, so your eyes can focus on closer objects than a long stretch of highway or oncoming headlights.
7. Contact lens use
Keeping your contacts lenses in too long or failing to replace your lenses regularly can irritate your eyes, making them itchy and red.
If you wear contact lenses, remember to take them out at night and follow other basic lens care steps. Follow your doctor’s advice about how to care for your lenses and how often you should replace them.
Red and itchy eyes may result from an inflammation of the eyelids known as blepharitis. It occurs when the little oil glands at the base of your eyelashes become blocked. Sometimes just keeping your eyelids clean is enough to resolve blepharitis symptoms, which may also include watery eyes and swelling.
Blepharitis won’t usually cause vision loss, but it can be a chronic problem that leads to conjunctivitis and other complications. Antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications may be necessary to provide relief and avoid further problems.
Home Treatments for Itchy Eyes
Here are two reliable home remedies that you can use to treat itchy eyes.
Always make sure to see a doctor if symptoms become severe enough to affect your day-to-day life.
Over-the-counter eye drops for itch relief are always helpful. Some are designed for allergies and redness, while others work like artificial tears for dryness. The best types are preservative free. Some help all these conditions in addition to itching.
You can also try a cold compress. A cold-water compress can relive the itch and have a soothing effect on your eyes. Simply take a clean cloth, soak it in cold water, and apply to closed itchy eyes, repeating as often as needed.
When to see a doctor
Most cases of itchy eyes don’t last very long, and they might even go away on their own.
To be safe, see a doctor if:
- you feel there is something lodged in your eye
- an eye infection develops
- your vision starts to get worse
- your itchy eyes turn into moderate to severe eye pain
If you experience any of the above, discontinue home treatments immediately and visit your doctor.