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Red Eyes: The Most Common Causes and Treatments

Pet allergies, pollen, a day at a sandy beach … There are lots of possible causes for red eyes. If you’re having a hard time pinpointing why your eyes are red, itchy or even painful, you may be feeling desperate for an answer.

Luckily, a trained ophthalmologist can help you narrow this down, and figure out a tailored treatment plan. We spoke to Xuemin "Rosie" Zhang, MD, an ophthalmologist at Banner - University Medicine Ophthalmology Clinic in Tucson, AZ, about common causes for red eyes, and how you should approach treatment.

What’s causing my red eyes?

As we mentioned, many health issues can result in red eyes. The American Academy of Ophthalmology lists the following conditions, among many others, associated with red eyes:

  • Conjunctivitis (pink eye)
  • Contact lens-related eye infections
  • Corneal abrasion (scratch on the cornea)
  • Corneal ulcer (open sore on the cornea)
  • Coronavirus/COVID-19
  • Eye allergies
  • Eye lymphoma
  • Glaucoma
  • Herpes keratitis (infection of the cornea)
  • Herpes zoster (shingles)
  • Ocular rosacea

With allergies, some common symptoms are redness, itching, burning and clear/watery discharge. Infections also include these symptoms, as well as pain, sensitivity to light, thick discharge, mucus-like discharge and a gritty feeling in the eyes.

“Early detection and treatment of eye problems is important,” Dr. Zhang said. Visiting an ophthalmologist is the best way to help you determine the problem and coordinate the treatment needed.

The age issue

Age — both young and old — can sometimes make diagnosis trickier.

With children, for example, they may struggle to explain their symptoms, or be unwilling to disclose an event that could get them in trouble with their parents (like sticking something in their eye they shouldn’t).

On the other hand, when it comes to the older generation, many people assume bad eyesight or other related symptoms, like red eye, are just an unavoidable part of aging and thus, never see a doctor. However, the American Academy of Ophthalmology points out that redness in the eye can be caused by many conditions and injuries, including eye disease. Because of this, the Academy recommends a baseline eye disease screening at age 40 for folks with no signs or risk factors for eye disease. For those with symptoms and risk factors, your ophthalmologist can recommend a good examination schedule.

Treating red eyes

If you think your red eyes were caused by a more commonplace single event — like mowing your lawn or petting your neighborhood cat — there’s a good chance it’ll go away after you place a cool compress over your eyes and practice good hygiene (i.e. showering, washing your hands, etc.). No need to involve a doctor quite yet. But if the cause is less obvious, and your symptoms persist, it might be time to schedule a visit.

Treatment really depends on the underlying diagnosis, and the diagnosis should be made by an ophthalmologist, Dr. Zhang explained. If you have allergic conjunctivitis, for example, you should avoid problematic allergens — use air purifiers, keep windows shut, frequently wash your hands — and possibly use eye drops and oral medications as recommended by your ophthalmologist. If you have bacterial conjunctivitis, treatment is geared toward relieving symptoms and involves taking antibiotics.

Whatever the cause, it’s always wise to involve an ophthalmologist if your red eyes persist. Red eyes could signal any number of problems, and you’re always better off getting proper eye care rather than trying to figure it out by yourself.

Visit bannerhealth.com to schedule a visit with a specialist in your area. You may also find these related articles, written with help from Banner Health experts, to be helpful:

Allergy and Immunology Eye Care

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