A red spot on the white of your eye can be alarming, but it’s probably not as serious as it looks.

It may be that one or more tiny blood vessels in your eye have broken and leaked. This is called subconjunctival hemorrhage. It can happen after something as simple as an unexpected cough or a sneezing fit.

Despite appearances, you probably won’t feel a thing. It’s usually harmless and clears up without treatment.

Keep reading to learn some causes of red spots on the eye, plus signs that it could be something more serious.

Red spots on the eye can happen to anyone of any age. That’s because the little blood vessels of the eye are fragile and easily broken. Here are some reasons you might have red spots on the whites of your eyes.

A spike in blood pressure

Anything that makes you strain can temporarily spike your blood pressure and break a few capillaries in your eyes. Some examples of these activities include:

  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • vomiting
  • moving your bowels
  • childbirth
  • heavy lifting

High blood pressure itself is a less common cause of red spots on the eye.

Diabetic retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is not a common cause of red spots in the eye. But it’s the most common reason for vision loss among people with all types of diabetes.

The condition causes retinal blood vessels to leak fluid or bleed. Symptoms may include floaters and blurry vision.

the Four stages of diabetic retinopathy
  1. Mild nonproliferative retinopathy. Some of the tiny blood vessels (microaneurysms) in the retina begin to swell, which may cause fluid to leak.
  2. Moderate nonproliferative retinopathy. Blood vessels begin to distort and have trouble transporting blood.
  3. Severe nonproliferative retinopathy. Many blood vessels are now blocked, so some areas of the retina no longer receive blood at all. This spurs the growth of new blood vessels.
  4. Proliferative diabetic retinopathy. An abundance of new blood vessels are growing inside the retina’s surface and into the vitreous gel. The new blood vessels are delicate, so they tend to leak and bleed. As scar tissue forms, the retina can become detached, leading to permanent vision loss.

If you have diabetes, plan on having a comprehensive dilated eye exam once a year or as advised by your doctor.

Eye injury

If you get poked in the eye or something flies into your eye, the injury can cause bleeding. Even mild trauma, such as when you rub your eyes a bit too hard, can result in broken capillaries and red spots.

That’s why it’s a good idea to use protective eyewear for work or sports that involve flying objects or debris.

Contact lens problem

A tiny speck of dust trapped behind your contact lens can cause huge irritation. Even more so if you respond by rubbing your eye.

As soon as you feel something in your eye, remove the lens and give it a thorough cleaning. Don’t wear contact lenses longer than recommended by your eye doctor, and make sure to replace them as needed.

Outdoors, wear sunglasses to protect against wind and dirt. Use appropriate eye protection for sports and other activities that could cause something to fly into your eyes.

Blood thinning medication

Some medications thin the blood, which makes it easier to bleed. That might be the case if you take aspirin too often or you take interferons.

Other blood thinners include:

Blood clotting disorders

It’s rare, but having a blood clotting disorder such as hemophilia or von Willebrand disease can increase the risk of subconjunctival hemorrhage.

Hyphema

Hyphema is not subconjunctival hemorrhage. Though they may look similar, hyphema causes additional symptoms, such as pain and light sensitivity.

Hyphema is caused by a tear to the iris or pupil, usually from an injury. Blood pools inside the front of the eye and can cover the iris and pupil.

That can block some or all of your vision. Untreated, it can permanently harm your vision.

If you’re not sure whether you have subconjunctival hemorrhage or hyphema, don’t take any chances. See your doctor right away.

Your doctor can diagnose subconjunctival hemorrhage just by looking at it. If you have symptoms that suggest something more, you’ll probably need a comprehensive eye exam.

Your doctor should assess any underlying issues, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

If it appears you have hyphema, your doctor may want to check the pressure in your eye or perform a CT scan to see if there’s any less visible damage.

A red spot on your eye is likely to clear up on its own within days or a few weeks. In the meantime, you can use artificial tears or a cool compress to help ease any irritation.

Vision loss due to diabetic retinopathy can be irreversible, but treatment can lower the risk of blindness by 95 percent.

treatment for diabetic retinopathy
  • corticosteroids injected or implanted into the eye
  • anti-VEGF injections to block the protein that triggers growth of abnormal, leaky blood vessels
  • laser surgery to reduce swelling and leakage of fluid
  • surgery to repair a detached retina, remove scar tissue, or remove the vitreous (vitrectomy)
  • overall diabetes management

If you have a red spot on your eye, but no other symptoms, you probably don’t need medical help.

when to see your doctor
  • Two weeks have gone by without improvement.
  • You have blurry or reduced vision.
  • You have eye discharge.
  • Your eye is swollen or hurts even though you have no apparent injury.
  • You think you may have something in your eye.
  • You also have an unusual headache.
  • You have diabetes or another condition that can affect the eyes.
  • Red spots on your eyes occur frequently and for no obvious reason.

If you have diabetes, have a full eye exam at least once a year and report any new or worsening symptoms right away.

Red spots on the eye are not usually serious. It doesn’t generally need any treatment. You may notice changes to the color and size of the spot as it heals, which should be within a week or two.

It can be surprising to see a red spot on your eye, but it’s probably just a harmless subconjunctival hemorrhage that doesn’t require treatment.

On the other hand, eye pain, discharge, diminished vision, or other symptoms could mean it’s something more serious. If that’s the case, see a doctor right away.