Why Eye Redness Happens and How to Treat It

Medically reviewed by Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, CNE, COI on May 3, 2016Written by Elizabeth Connor on May 3, 2016

Red eyes

Your eyes are often considered to be a window into your soul, so it’s understandable that you don’t want them to be red and sore. Eye redness can happen when the blood vessels on the surface of your eye expand or dilate. This can happen when a foreign object or substance has gotten into your eye or when infection has formed.

Eye redness is usually temporary and clears up quickly. Here are some things you can do to make the process easier.

Short-term solutions for red eyes

The right remedy for your red eyes depends on the specific cause. Generally, one or more of the following will ease the discomfort of most cases of red eyes.

Warm compress

Soak a towel in warm water and wring it out. The area around the eyes is sensitive, so keep the temperature at a reasonable level. Place the towel on your eyes for about 10 minutes. The heat can increase blood flow to the area. It can also increase oil production on your eyelids. This allows your eyes to create more lubrication.

Cool compress

If a warm compress isn’t working, you can take the opposite approach. A towel soaked in cool water and wrung out may also provide short-term relief for red eye symptoms. It can relieve any swelling and reduce any itchiness from irritation. Be sure to avoid any extremes of temperature in the area around your eyes, or you may make the problem worse.

Artificial tears

Tears lubricate your eyes and help keep them clean. Short-term or long-term dryness might call for over-the-counter artificial tears to keep your eyes healthy. If cool artificial tears are recommended, consider refrigerating the solution.

Long-term solutions for red eyes

If you regularly experience red, irritated eyes, you may need to think beyond quick fixes. Here are a few lifestyle changes that may relieve your symptoms. You should also talk to your doctor if the problem persists.

Switch contacts

If you’re experiencing chronic eye redness and you wear contact lenses, the problem may involve your eyewear. The materials found inside certain lenses can increase your likelihood for infection or irritation. If you’ve recently switched lenses — or if you’ve had the same type of lenses for a while — and experience redness, talk to your eye doctor. They can help you pinpoint the problem.

The contact solution that you use can also affect your eyes. Certain solution ingredients aren’t as compatible with certain lens materials. Make sure you’re using the best contact solution for your lenses.

Pay attention to your diet

If you aren’t staying hydrated, it can cause your eyes to be bloodshot. Generally, a person needs about 8 cups of water a day to maintain a proper fluid balance.

Eating an excessive amount of inflammatory foods may cause eye redness. Processed foods, dairy products, and fast foods can all cause inflammation if eaten in excess. You can relieve this by limiting the amount you eat or adding more inflammation-reducing foods to your diet.

Research has found that foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids can reduce inflammation. These are commonly found in fish, such as salmon, and seeds and nuts, such as flaxseed. You can also take supplements containing omega-3s.

Be aware of your surroundings

Your environment can also affect your eyes. If you’re constantly surrounded by allergens, such as pollen or smoke, it may be at the root of the problem. Dry air, humidity, and wind can also have an effect.

What causes red eyes?

Although there are countless reasons why your eyes may be red, these are the most common:

Conjunctivitis (pink eye)

As the name suggests, pink eye can cause inflammation in the eye area. The highly contagious condition appears in three forms: bacterial, viral, and allergic.

Bacterial conjunctivitis is typically treated with a prescription antibiotic. Viral conjunctivitis can be soothed with a cool compress and cool artificial tears. Symptoms generally clear in less than two weeks.

Allergic conjunctivitis also benefits from cool compresses and cool artificial tears. You should also consider cool allergy eye drops. Your doctor can help you identify the specific source of irritation and how to reduce it.

Check out: The best pink eye remedies »

Allergens

Many people experience eye irritation when exposed to pollen. To reduce irritation, stay inside when pollen counts are highest. This is usually during mid-morning and early evening. You should also take precautions when conditions are windy. Use eye protection outdoors.

Mold is another common allergen. If that’s the case for you, keep the humidity level of your home between 30 and 50 percent. If you live in a humid climate, you may need a dehumidifier. Make sure you regularly clean high-humidity areas, such as basements or bathrooms, to keep them free of mold.

Pet dander can be controlled with some common sense strategies. If possible, keep your pets outside. You should also keep them away from things that will touch your eyes, such as bed pillows. Avoid rubbing your eyes after touching your pet, and wash your hands after any contact has been made.

Blepharitis

Blepharitis is a common inflammatory eye disorder that causes redness in the eye area. It can also cause:

  • itchiness
  • burning
  • flaking
  • crusting

There isn’t any strong evidence to suggest that antibiotics are effective against blepharitis. Conventional remedies call for keeping the eyelids clean and using a warm compress.

Subconjunctival hemorrhage

A less common type of red eye is a single, dramatic blood-colored patch on the eye. This blotch is typically a bruise similar to what you may have on the skin. It may arise after a minor bump or even coughing or sneezing. High blood pressure and use of blood thinners increase the chance of a hemorrhage.

This generally clears up in two weeks without any treatment. You should see a doctor if you’re having any pain or persistent discomfort.

When to see a doctor

You should see a doctor if you:

  • have loss of vision
  • feel significant pain
  • have recently experienced head trauma
  • have a chemical injury
  • have had a recent eye surgery
  • have a history of severe pain

Your doctor will run through a list of questions to help diagnose your symptoms. These questions may include:

  • Is your vision affected?
  • Are your eyes producing tears or a discharge?
  • Do you have pain?
  • Are you sensitive to light, or do you see colored haloes?
  • What is your history regarding contact lenses, chemical, or physical injury?
  • What is the medical history of your eyes?

Outlook

In most cases, the conditions that cause eye redness aren’t serious and will clear without medical treatment. Home remedies, such as compresses and artificial tears, can help relieve any symptoms you may be experiencing. If the symptoms persist or include pain or loss of vision, you should seek immediate medical care.

Keep reading: Severe allergy: Symptoms and treatments »

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