What causes eye burning sensation? 9 possible conditions
Eye burning accompanied by itching or discharge is usually a sign of infection. These symptoms can also occur due to an eye injury or a foreign body in the eye.
These symptoms are serious and should be investigated by your eye doctor or primary care doctor immediately. Leaving them untreated can increase your risk of eye damage or loss of sight.
The most common cause of combined eye burning, itching, and discharge is an eye infection. Common causes of eye infections include:
- viruses (such as the herpes simplex virus, which causes cold sores and can also be spread to the eye)
- a fungus or parasite (contaminated contact lenses can be carriers of these)
- wearing unclean contact lenses
- wearing contact lenses for an extended period of time
- using expired eye drops
- sharing contact lenses with another person
- sharing eye make-up with others
The most common eye infection is conjunctivitis, also known as pinkeye. Conjunctivitis is an infection of the conjunctiva—the thin membrane found along your eyelid and part of the eye itself. This inflammation affects the tiny blood vessels in the conjunctiva, causing the characteristic pink (or red) eye. The infection causes severe itching and watering in one or both eyes, along with discharge that often leaves a crusty material in the eye corners and on the eyelashes.
Conjunctivitis is highly contagious if it is caused by a virus or bacteria. It can also be caused by allergies or a chemical or foreign substance entering the eye. In newborns, a blocked tear duct is the most common cause.
Foreign Body in the Eye
Introduction of a foreign body into the eye can also cause eye burning, itching, and discharge. Foreign bodies that are often responsible for these symptoms include:
- plant material
These symptoms may also be caused by an injury to the eye area, which can easily occur when playing sports or working around chemicals. This is why it’s important to wear protective eye gear in these situations. You can also injure your eye with a sharp fingernail when putting in or taking out your contacts.
Itching, burning, and discharge alone are not enough for a doctor to make a diagnosis. Tell your doctor if you’ve experienced any other symptoms in addition to these.
Common symptoms that may accompany the burning, itching, and discharge are:
- red or pink eye appearance
- swollen eyelids
- crust around the eyelashes and corners of the eye upon waking up
- difficulty opening the eyes in the morning due to discharge
- yellow or green discharge leaking from the corner of eye
- watery eyes
- sensitivity to light
- an ulcer, scratch, or cut on the surface of the eye (these are very serious conditions that can lead to loss of eyesight if left untreated)
Make sure to tell your doctor how long you’ve had the symptoms and if they’ve worsened over time. If you’ve had an eye injury or if you wear contact lenses, let your doctor know this as well. He or she may need to refer you to an eye doctor for further testing.
The eye doctor will visibly inspect your eye using a lighted instrument called a slit lamp. He or she may also apply a fluorescent dye to the surface of your eye before using the slit lamp. The fluorescent dye helps to illuminate any damaged areas. The doctor may also take a sample of the discharge from the eye to test for the presence of bacteria.
Bacterial eye infections are often treated with prescription antibiotics in the form of eye drops. However, you may have to take oral antibiotics to help fight the eye infection if prescription drops aren’t enough.
There is no treatment for viral eye infections. However, this type of infection often goes away within two to three weeks.
Using steroid eye drops may also relieve eye inflammation and itching. These eye drops are effective in treating ulcers that may have formed on the eye due to extensive damage from an infection. Eye ulcers are serious and can damage your sight.
Prevent the spread of an eye infection to others by washing your hands thoroughly after touching your eyes. You can also prevent the spread of the infection from one eye to the other by washing your hands after touching the infected eye or any other facial area.
Never share bedding, contact lenses, sunglasses, glasses, towels, or eye makeup with anyone who has an eye infection.
Wash your contact lens case and disinfect it after every use. Take out your lenses daily and clean them in disinfectant solution. Wash your hands thoroughly before touching the surface of your eye. Also, discard eye drops and solutions if they are past the expiration date.
Prevent your eye from being cut by clipping your nails before removing and putting in your contact lenses.
Wear protective gear when playing sports or when working around chemicals or equipment that may shoot out debris, such as a chainsaw.
- Contact lens-related eye infections. (n.d.). American Academy of Ophthalmology. Retrieved July 12, 2012, from http://www.geteyesmart.org/eyesmart/diseases/contact-lens-related-infections.cfm
- Eye infections. (n.d). Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins. Retrieved July 12, 2012, from http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/wilmer/conditions/infections.html
- Herpes simplex eye infections. (2012, May 27). NHS Choices. Retrieved July 23, 2012, from http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Herpes-simplex-eye-infections/Pages/Introduction.aspx
- Klotz, S. A., Penn, C. C., Negvesky, G. J., & Butrus, S. I. (2000, October). Fungal and parasitic infections of the eye. Clinical Microbiology Reviews (13)4, 662-685. Retrieved July 23, 2012, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC88956/
- Pink eye (conjunctivitis). (2010, May 22). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved July 23, 2012, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/pink-eye/DS00258
See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.
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