What causes eye pain? 26 possible conditions

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What Is Eye Pain?

Eye pain is also known as ophthalmalgia. Depending on where you experience the discomfort, eye pain can fall into one of two categories: ocular pain (occurs on the eye’s surface), and orbital pain (occurs within the eye). Eye pain is common, but it’s rarely a symptom of a serious condition. Most often, the pain resolves on its own, without the need of medicine or treatment.

Eye pain that occurs on the surface may be a scratching, burning, or itching sensation. Surface pain is usually caused by irritation from a foreign object, infection, or trauma. Often, this type of eye pain is easily treated with eye drops or rest.

Eye pain that occurs deeper within the eye may feel aching, gritty, stabbing, or throbbing. This kind of eye pain may require more in-depth treatment, but it is rarely a sign of a larger, more serious condition.

However, eye pain accompanied by vision loss may be a symptom of an emergency medical issue. Call your ophthalmologist immediately if you begin to lose your vision while experiencing eye pain.

What Causes Ocular Pain?

The following may cause eye pain that originates on the surface of the eye (ocular pain).

Foreign Object

The most common cause of eye pain is simply having something in your eye. Whether it’s an eyelash, a piece of dirt, or makeup, having a foreign object in the eye can cause irritation, redness, watery eyes, and pain.

Conjunctivitis

The conjunctiva is the tissue that lines the front of the eye and the underside of the eyelid. It can become infected and inflamed. Often, this is caused by an allergy or infection. Though the pain is usually mild, the inflammation causes itchiness, redness, and discharge in the eye. Conjunctivitis is also called pinkeye.

Contact Lens Irritation

People who wear contact lenses overnight or don’t disinfect their lenses properly are more susceptible to eye pain caused by irritation or infection.

Corneal Abrasion

The cornea, the clear surface that covers the eye, is susceptible to injuries. When you have a corneal abrasion, you will feel as if you have something in your eye. However, treatments that typically remove irritants from an eye (such as flushing with water) will not ease the pain and discomfort if you have a corneal abrasion.

Injury

Chemical burns and flash burns to the eye can cause significant pain. These burns are often the result of exposure to irritants such as bleach or from intense light sources, such as the sun, tanning booths, or the materials used in arc welding.

Blepharitis

Blepharitis occurs when oil glands on the eyelid’s edge become infected or inflamed. This can cause pain.

Sty

If the blepharitis infection creates a nodule or raised bump on the eyelid, it is called a sty or chalazion. A sty can be very painful, and the area around the sty is usually very tender and sensitive to touch.

What Causes Orbital Pain?

Eye pain felt within the eye itself (orbital pain) may be caused by the following conditions.

Glaucoma

This condition occurs as intraocular pressure (the pressure inside the eye) rises. Additional symptoms caused by glaucoma include nausea, headache, and loss of vision. A sudden rise in pressure, called acute angle closure glaucoma, is an emergency, and immediate treatment is needed to prevent permanent vision loss.

Optic Neuritis

If the optic nerve (the nerve that connects the back of the eyeball to the brain) becomes inflamed, you may experience eye pain accompanied by a loss of vision. An autoimmune disease or a viral or bacterial infection may cause the inflammation.

Sinusitis

An infection of the sinuses can cause pressure behind the eyes to build. As it does, it can create pain in one or both eyes.

Migraines

Eye pain is a common side effect of migraine headaches.

Injury

Penetrating injuries to the eye, which can occur when a person is hit with an object or is involved in an accident, can cause significant eye pain.

Iritis

While uncommon, inflammation in the iris can cause pain deep inside the eye.

When Is Eye Pain an Emergency?

If you begin experiencing vision loss in addition to eye pain, this may be a sign of an emergency situation. Other symptoms that need immediate medical attention include:

  • unusually severe eye pain
  • eye pain caused by trauma or exposure to a chemical or light
  • abdominal pain and vomiting that accompanies eye pain
  • pain so severe it’s impossible to touch the eye
  • sudden and dramatic vision changes

How Is Eye Pain Treated?

The treatment for eye pain depends on the cause of the pain. The most common treatments include:

Home Care

The best way to treat many of the conditions that cause eye pain is to allow your eyes to rest. Staring at a computer screen or television can cause eyestrain, so your doctor may require you to rest with your eyes covered for a day or more.

Glasses

If you frequently wear contact lenses, give your corneas time to heal by wearing your glasses.

Warm Compress

Doctors may instruct patients with blepharitis or a sty to keep warm, moist towels on their eyes. This will help to clear the clogged oil gland or hair follicle.

Flushing

If a foreign body or chemical gets into your eye, flush your eye with water or a saline solution to wash the irritant out.

Antibiotics

Antibacterial drops and oral antibiotics may be used to treat infections of the eye that are causing pain, including conjunctivitis and corneal abrasions.

Antihistamines

Eye drops and oral medicines can help ease the pain associated with allergies in the eyes.

Eye Drops

Patients with glaucoma may use medicated eye drops to reduce the pressure building in their eyes.

Corticosteroids

For more serious infections, such as optic neuritis and iritis, your doctor may give you corticosteroids.

Pain Medications

If the pain is severe and causes an interruption to your day-to-day life, your doctor may prescribe a pain medicine to help ease the pain until the underlying condition is treated.

Surgery

Surgery is sometimes needed to repair damage done by a foreign body or burn. However, this is rare. Individuals with glaucoma may need to have a laser treatment to improve drainage in the eye.

What Happens if Eye Pain Is Not Treated?

Most eye pain will fade on its own or with mild treatment. Eye pain and the underlying conditions that cause it rarely cause permanent damage to the eye. However, that’s not always the case. Some conditions that cause eye pain may also cause problems that are more serious if they are not treated.

For example, the pain and symptoms caused by glaucoma are a sign of an impending problem. If not diagnosed and treated, glaucoma can cause vision problems and eventually total blindness. Your vision is nothing to gamble on. If you begin to experience eye pain (that is not caused by something like an eyelash in the eye), make an appointment to see your ophthalmologist as soon as possible.

How Can You Prevent Eye Pain?

Eye pain prevention starts with eye protection. The following are ways you can prevent eye pain:

  • Prevent many causes of eye pain, such as scratches and burns, by wearing goggles or safety glasses when playing sports, exercising, mowing the lawn, or working with hand tools. Construction workers, welders, and people who work around flying objects, chemicals, or welding gear should always wear protective eye gear.
  • Direct chemicals and potent agents—such as household cleaners, detergents, and pest control spray—away from your body when using them.
  • Avoid giving your child a toy that can injure his or her eyes. Toys with spring-loaded components, toys that shoot, and toy swords, guns, and bouncing balls can all injure a child’s eye.
  • Clean your contacts thoroughly and routinely. Wear your glasses on occasion to allow your eyes time to rest. Do not wear contacts longer than they are intended to be worn or used.

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.

1

Glaucoma

Glaucoma is a term for several eye conditions that can damage your optic nerve. It has many types, and over time it can lead to vision loss.

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2

External Eyelid Stye (Hordeolum Externum)

An external eyelid stye is an inflamed area or bump on the eyelid. The medical term for a stye is hordeolum externum . Styes are red, painful lumps (most look like pimples) near the edge of the eyelid, where th...

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3

Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye)

Conjunctivitis, or "pink eye," is an infection or swelling in the eye area that causes inflammation of the conjunctiva, giving the eye a red or pink color.

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4

Sinus Infections (Sinusitis)

A sinus infection causes the sinuses and nasal passages to become inflamed. Facial swelling is a common sign of this type of infection.

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5

Nearsightedness (Myopia)

Nearsightedness, or myopia, is a very common condition in which nearby objects are visible but faraway objects are out of focus and difficult to see.

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6

Farsightedness

Farsightedness, or hyperopia, is a common vision impairment in which you are able to see things that are far away, but have trouble seeing things that are up close.

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7

Eyelid Turned In (Entropion)

Entropion is when your eyelid rotates inward, causing irritation, abrasion, and redness. It is common in older people, but it can also be congenital or caused by chemical burns, tracoma, or herpes zoster ophthalmicus.

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8

Allergic Conjunctivitis

Allergic conjunctivitis is when exposure to allergens (such as mold spores or pollen) cause your eyes to become watery, red, and itchy.

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9

Dry Eye Syndrome

Dry eye syndrome is a condition in which the eyes cannot produce a sufficient amount of tears. This can lead to irritation and eye redness. Causes can include medications, allergies, and hormone replacement therapy.

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10

Rheumatoid Arthritis Overview

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease, a disease in which the immune system mistakes the body's own cells for invaders. In RA, the immune system attacks the synovia, the membranes lining the joints.

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11

Migraine with Aura

Migraine is a disorder characterized by repeated attacks of severe headache. A migraine headache causes throbbing or pulsating pain, usually on only one side of the head. These headaches are often associated wit...

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12

Corneal Abrasion

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A corneal abrasion is a worn or scraped-off area of the outer, clear layer of the eye (cornea).

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13

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are severely painful headaches that occur in clusters, meaning that you experience cycles of headache attacks followed by headache-free periods. The frequency of your headaches during those cycles ma...

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14

Uveitis

Uveitis is swelling of the middle layer of the eye, which is called the uvea. The uvea supplies blood to the retina. The retina is the light-sensitive part of the eye that focuses the images you see and sends them t...

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15

Corneal Ulcer

At the front of the eye is a clear layer of tissue called the cornea. The cornea is the window of your eye and permits light to enter the eye. Tears constitute the natural defense against bacteria, viruses, or fungi fo...

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16

Multiple Sclerosis Overview

Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 individuals in the United States and over two million worldwide. Although it is considered a relatively rare disease, MS is of particular interest recentl...

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17

Optic Neuritis

Optic neuritis (ON) is a condition in which your optic nerve (the nerve that carries visual information from your eye to your brain) becomes inflamed. Inflammation causes vision loss-although usually in only one eye. A...

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18

Brain Aneurysm

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

An aneurysm in the brain is a weak area in an artery in the brain that bulges out and fills with blood. It may also be called an intracranial (skull) aneurysm or a cerebral (brain) aneurysm. A brain aneurysm is ...

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19

Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is a condition that occurs as a result of damaged blood vessels of the retina in people who have diabetes. Diabetic retinopathy can develop whether you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes. While you ma...

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20

Hyphema

A hyphema is a pooling or collection of blood inside the anterior chamber of the eye (the space between the cornea and the iris). The blood may cover most or all of the iris and the pupil, blocking vision partially o...

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