Eye redness occurs when the vessels in your eye become swollen or irritated. Redness of the eye, also called bloodshot eyes, or pink eye can indicate the presence of several different health problems. While some of these problems are benign, others are serious and require emergency medical attention. The redness of your eye may be a cause for concern. However, most serious eye problems happen when you have redness along with pain or changes in your vision.
The most common causes of eye redness happen when the vessels on the surface of the eye become inflamed. Various irritants can cause this to occur including:
- dry air
- exposure to the sun
- allergic reactions
- bacteria or viruses
Eyestrain or coughing can cause a specific condition known as subconjunctival hemorrhage. When this occurs, a blood blotch may appear in one eye. Even though the condition looks serious, if it is not accompanied by pain, it will typically clear up in a week to 10 days.
More serious causes of eye redness include infections. Infections can occur in different structures of the eye and typically produce additional symptoms such as pain, discharge, or changes in your vision.
Infections that can cause eye redness include:
- inflammation of the follicles of the eyelashes (blepharitis)
- inflammation of the membrane that coats the eye (conjunctivitis/pinkeye)
- ulcers that cover the eye (corneal ulcers)
- inflammation of the uvea (uveitis)
Other conditions that may cause eye redness include:
Most causes of eye redness do not warrant emergency medical attention. If you experience eye redness, you should make an appointment to see your doctor if:
- your symptoms last longer than two days
- you experience changes in your vision
- you experience pain in your eye
- you become sensitive to light
- you have discharge from one or both of your eyes
- you take medications that thin your blood such as heparin or warfarin
Even though most causes of eye redness are not severe, you should seek emergency medical help if:
- your eye is red following trauma or injury
- you experience a headache and have blurry vision
- you begin seeing white rings (halos) around lights
- you experience nausea and vomiting
If your eye redness is caused by a medical condition such as conjunctivitis or blepharitis, you may be able to treat your symptoms at home. Warm compresses on the eye can help reduce the symptoms of these conditions. You should also make sure that you wash your hands frequently, avoid wearing makeup or contacts, and avoid touching the eye.
If your eye redness is accompanied by pain or changes in vision, you may need to see your doctor for treatment. Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms, your current health conditions, and problems that may have caused irritation to your eye. Your doctor may also examine your eye and use a saline solution to wash out any irritants in your eye.
Depending on your diagnosis, your doctor will be able to prescribe treatment that helps to alleviate your symptoms. This would likely include antibiotics, eye drops, and home care as described above. In some cases, where the eye is very irritated, your doctor may suggest wearing a patch to limit light exposure and encourage healing.
Most causes of eye redness will not result in serious complications. If, however, you have an infection that causes vision changes, this may affect your ability to perform basic daily tasks such as cooking or driving. Vision impairments in these areas can result in accidental injury. Infections that are not treated may also result in permanent damage to the eye. If eye redness does not resolve in two days, you should call your doctor.
Most cases of eye redness can be prevented by using proper hygiene and avoiding irritants that can cause redness. Examples include:
- Wash your hands if you are exposed to someone who has an eye infection.
- Remove all makeup from your eyes each day.
- Do not wear contact lenses longer than recommended.
- Clean your contact lenses regularly.
- Avoid activities that can cause eyestrain.
- Avoid substances that can cause your eyes to become irritated.
- If your eye becomes contaminated, flush it out immediately with water.