What Causes Eye Burning Sensation?

Conditions list medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA

If you have a burning sensation in your eye and it’s accompanied by itchiness and discharge, chances are you have an infection. These symptoms can also be a sign that you have an eye injury or a foreign object in your eye, or allergies. Symptoms... Read More

If you have a burning sensation in your eye and it’s accompanied by itchiness and discharge, chances are you have an infection. These symptoms can also be a sign that you have an eye injury or a foreign object in your eye, or allergies.

Symptoms can be serious and leaving your eye untreated can increase your risk of eye damage or loss of sight. Read on to learn more about causes, symptoms, treatments, and prevention.

What causes burning, itching, and discharge from the eye?

Eye infection

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
  • bacteria
  • 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 makeup with others

The most common eye infection is conjunctivitis, also known as pinkeye. Conjunctivitis is an infection of the conjunctiva. The conjunctiva is 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

If you get something in your eye, like a piece of sand or dirt, that can cause eye burning, itching, and discharge. Other foreign bodies that may cause these symptoms include:

  • plant material
  • pollen
  • insects
  • spices

Foreign bodies in your eye can also cause eye damage if the object scratches your cornea, or injures your eye in another way. You should avoid rubbing your eye because that could increase your risk for injuring your eye.

Eye injury

Eye burning, itching, and discharge may also be caused by an injury to the eye area, which can 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.

Diagnosing the cause of eye burning, itching, and discharge

Because there are various things that can cause itching, burning, and discharge in your eyes, your doctor will need more information to make a diagnosis. Tell your doctor if you’ve experienced any other symptoms.

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
  • difficulty opening the eyes in the morning due to discharge
  • yellow or green discharge leaking from the corner of the 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 sight 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. They may need to refer you to an eye doctor for further testing.

Eye doctors will inspect your eye using a lighted instrument called a slit lamp. They 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. Your doctor may also take a sample of the discharge from your eye to test for the presence of bacteria.

Treating eye burning, itching, and discharge

Your treatment plan will vary depending on the cause of your symptoms. 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. 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.

If you suspect you have a foreign object in your eye, do not try to remove it yourself. Seek immediate medical help. A doctor can safely remove the object from your eye.

Preventing eye burning, itching, and discharge

You can prevent the spread of an eye infection to others by washing your hands thoroughly after touching your eyes. Washing your hands can also help prevent spreading an infection from one of your eyes to the other. If you have an infection, make sure you wash your hands after touching the infected eye or any other area on your face.

You should also avoid sharing the following with anyone who has an eye infection:

  • bedding
  • contact lenses
  • sunglasses or eyeglasses
  • towels
  • eye makeup or eye makeup brushes

If you wear contact lenses, follow your doctor’s recommendations for cleaning and caring for your contact lenses.

  • 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 or removing or putting on your contact lenses.
  • Discard eye drops and solutions if they are past the expiration date.
  • If you wear disposable contacts, replace them according to the directions or your doctor’s recommendations.
  • Prevent your eye from being cut by clipping your nails before removing and putting in your contact lenses.

You should also wear protective gear when playing sports or when working around chemicals or equipment that may shoot out debris, such as a chainsaw.

What’s the outlook?

Always see your doctor if you have eye burning along with itchiness and discharge. Your doctor can correctly diagnose your condition and recommend a treatment plan to help improve your symptoms.

If you have an eye infection, wash your hands frequently and avoid sharing things with other people that may have come into contact with your eye, like towels, makeup brushes, or sunglasses. That will help prevent the spread of an infection.


9 possible conditions

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.

Conditions list medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA