Eye irritation is a general term used to describe the feeling when something is bothering your eyes or the surrounding area.

While the symptoms may be similar, there are many possible causes of eye irritation.

Read on as we explore some of the more common causes of eye irritation, their symptoms, and possible treatments.

The specific symptoms that you may experience are dependent on the source of your eye irritation. However, the most common symptoms of eye irritation include:

Allergies

Eye allergies happen when something that you’re allergic to, called an allergen, disturbs the membranes of your eye.

There are many things that can cause eye allergies, including pollen, dust mites, molds, and pet dander.

Symptoms typically occur in both eyes shortly after you’re exposed to an allergen. For example, if you’re allergic to pet dander you may experience eye allergy symptoms if you visit the home of someone who has a cat or dog.

Treatment for eye allergies is centered on symptom relief. Over-the-counter pills or eye drops may help. However, your doctor may recommend prescription medication or allergy shots if your symptoms are persistent or long-lasting.

Irritants

Accidental exposure to things such as smoke, dust particles, or chemical vapors can also cause eye irritation.

In addition to being red or watery after exposure, your eyes may also have a grainy feeling.

In many cases, thoroughly rinsing the affected eye or eyes with room temperature water for 15 to 20 minutes can relieve symptoms.

Exposure to some irritants has the potential to cause permanent damage or burns to your eyes. It’s important to limit the duration of time that your eyes are exposed to an irritant and to seek prompt medical attention if symptoms do not go away after rinsing.

Foreign objects

Foreign objects can get into your eyes and cause irritation. These objects can be small things such as a stray eyelash or something larger, such as a piece of glass. Some objects can cause damage to your eye.

If you suspect that you have a foreign object in your eye, your doctor will shine a small light into your eye to try to see the object. They may also look under your eyelid or use a special dye to check for a scratched cornea.

Treatment involves removal of the foreign object. Depending on the object that was in your eye, your doctor may also prescribe a course of antibiotics to prevent infection.

Digital eye strain

Sometimes you may feel eye irritation when you’ve been using your computer, phone, or tablet for an extended period of time. This is referred to as “digital eye strain” or “computer vision syndrome.”

In addition to eye irritation or discomfort, symptoms of digital eye strain can include headache, dry eyes, and pain in your neck or shoulders.

The symptoms of digital eye strain are temporary and should subside when you stop using your computer or phone.

The American Optometric Association recommends that you follow the 20-20-20 rule when using electronic devices. This means that you should take 20 seconds to look at something at least 20 feet away after every 20 minutes of work.

Dry eye

Tears help to keep your eyes moist and lubricated. They’re secreted from glands located near your eyes. When the quantity or quality of tears is insufficient to keep your eyes moist, you can develop dry eye.

In addition to eye irritation, your eyes may feel like they’re dry and scratchy, or like you have something in them.

Mild dry eye can be treated with over-the-counter medications such as artificial tears. More severe cases may require prescription dry eye medications. Lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, cutting back on screen time, and wearing wraparound sunglasses to protect against dry conditions may also help.

Infections

A variety of bacterial, viral, or fungal infections can cause eye irritation.

Additional symptoms that you may experience can include swelling of the membranes around the eye, an urge to rub your eyes, pus or mucus discharge, and crusting of the eyelids or lashes.

Treatment depends on what is causing the infection.

Viral infections are typically mild and resolve in one to two weeks.

If you have a bacterial infection, your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics in an eye drop format.

Fungal eye infections can be treated with antifungal medication in eye drop or pill form. In very severe cases, antifungal medication may need to be injected directly into the eye.

Styes

The presence of a stye, a painful lump located at the edge of your eye, can cause eye irritation.

If you have a stye, it can look like a pimple and may be filled with pus. You may notice pain and swelling around your eyelid as well.

Styes typically disappear on their own and often warm compresses can help. Persistent styes may be treated with antibiotics or surgery to drain the pus.

Blocked tear duct

Normally, your tears drain through your tear ducts and into your nose where they’re reabsorbed. If you have a blocked tear duct, your tears will be prevented from draining from your eye properly. This can lead to eye irritation.

Additional symptoms can include crusting of your eyelids, pain around the inside corner of your eye, and recurring eye infections.

Treatments can include dilation of the tear duct or placement of a small tube in order to allow for tear drainage. In some cases, surgery may be required to open a passageway through which your tears can drain.

Other medical conditions that can cause eye irritation

Additional medical conditions that can also cause eye irritation include:

  • Blepharitis. This condition is characterized by inflammation of your eyelids, typically due to bacteria or issues with oil production near to your eye. It can recur frequently, which can make it difficult to treat.
  • Ocular rosacea. People with the chronic skin condition rosacea can develop this condition in which the eyes are dry, itchy, and red.
  • Glaucoma. Glaucoma is characterized by damage to the optic nerve of your eye. People with glaucoma often experience dry eye as a side effect of medication, causing eye irritation. Some types of glaucoma can also cause eye pain.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA). This chronic inflammatory disease can occasionally impact other parts of your body. Dry eyes are a common eye-related symptom of RA. Additionally, the white part of your eye (sclera) may also become inflamed and painful.
  • Brain tumor. If a brain tumor is located in or near to a part of your brain associated with vision, you may experience blurred vision, double vision, or vision loss.
  • Cluster headaches. Cluster headaches are a rare headache disorder in which people experience frequent severe pain that can last anywhere from 15 minutes to 3 hours. The pain is often near the eye and can lead to eye redness, teary eyes, and eyelid swelling.
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS). Issues with vision can be an early indicator of MS. Symptoms are due to inflammation and damage to the protective covering of your nerves. MS-related eye symptoms can include blurry vision, graying of vision, and decreased vision.

Treatment for eye irritation due to the conditions above can consist of home eye care, medicated eye drops or nasal sprays, or steroid treatment.

If you have a chronic or recurring condition that’s causing you eye irritation, you should speak to your doctor.

There are many possible causes of eye irritation. Some of these causes, such as digital eye strain or a stye, can disappear on their own. Others, such as irritant exposure or a blocked tear duct, require treatment.

The type of treatment that you receive is dependent on what’s causing your eye irritation and can range from medicated eye drops to surgical procedures.

If you’re experiencing eye irritation symptoms that bother you, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your concerns and determine the cause of the irritation.