Portrait if woman with red light shinning on her eye.Share on Pinterest
Georgii Boronin/Getty Images

Eye pain is a common problem with a wide range of causes. If it feels like your eyeballs are on fire, it could be a sign of several conditions, ranging from minor to very serious. It could be something temporary or a sign of a chronic condition that you’ll need to deal with for many years to come.

While some causes of burning eye pain resolve on their own, others can lead to lasting vision damage if they’re not quickly treated by a medical professional.

Keep reading to learn more about the most common causes of burning eye pain as well as symptoms and treatment options that you might need to consider.

Dry eye syndrome is a very common cause of eye pain and itching. It happens when your eyes don’t have the moisture they need to work properly.

This can happen because your eyes don’t make enough tears or if the tears your eyes do make don’t do a good enough job of keeping your eyes wet.

Common symptoms of dry eye syndrome include:

  • red eyes
  • blurry vision
  • sensitivity to light

Over-the-counter (OTC) eye drops are often enough to treat dry eye syndrome. Lifestyle changes, such as using a humidifier and drinking enough water, can also be beneficial.

But when dry eye is severe, you might need to see a doctor to look into stronger treatments, including:

  • prescription eye drops
  • tear duct plugs
  • surgery

Eye infections can cause eye pain, redness, and itching. Some eye infections, like conjunctivitis, are minor and easily treated. But other eye infections are extremely serious and require urgent treatment.

Common eye infections include:

  • Conjunctivitis: Conjunctivitis is a bacterial or viral infection commonly known as “pink eye” that causes eye redness, itching, watering, and discharge. It’s also very easy to spread to others. Antibiotic eye drops can help treat bacterial conjunctivitis.
  • Keratitis: Keratitis happens when your cornea (the see-through tissue at the front of your eyeball) gets infected or injured. It causes eye redness, eye pain, and blurred vision. Keratitis requires urgent medical attention because it can lead to vision loss if it’s not treated.
  • Endophthalmitis: Endophthalmitis is a severe eye infection inside your eyeball that causes intense eye pain, eye swelling, blurry vision, and eye discharge. This condition is a medical emergency — treatment with antibiotics is usually needed quickly before vision loss starts to occur.

Around 40 percent of people in North American experience some kind of eye irritation that results from allergies to environmental irritants, like pollen, mold, animal dander, or air pollution.

Some allergic reactions may only affect your eyes, but many people with allergies also experience a stuffy nose and other respiratory symptoms.

Allergy symptoms that can affect your eyes include:

  • itching
  • burning
  • redness
  • watering

Allergies can be treated with oral antihistamines or eye drops containing antihistamines. If you have mild allergies, OTC antihistamines like Zyrtec (cetirizine) or Allegra (loratadine) should be enough to help you get relief from your symptoms.

If your allergies are severe, an allergist, which is a doctor who specializes in allergies and asthma, can help you develop an allergy treatment plan.

Contact lenses can leave your eyes feeling irritated, especially when you leave them in too long. Wearing contacts that are old, dirty, or the wrong prescription can also cause pain and burning.

Not cleaning your contact lenses correctly as well as wearing old contact lenses can both lead to a condition called contact lens-induced conjunctivitis. This happens when there’s dust buildup dust or other external substances on your contact lenses.

Symptoms include:

  • itching
  • redness
  • blurred vision
  • a feeling like something is in your eye
  • strands of mucus in your eye

You might need to wear glasses instead of contacts for a few days to help your eyes recover before using contacts again.

Once your eyes are healed, use a fresh pair of contacts that have been stored in a sealed container. Talk with an eye doctor if you frequently develop contact lens-induced conjunctivitis — you may need a new type of contact lenses or to consider wearing glasses permanently instead of contacts.

Nerve pain can happen when the optic nerve, located behind your eye, swells because of inflammation. This can make it difficult for your eye to transmit visual information to your brain and cause severe pain in the back of your eye.

Nerve pain in the eye typically only affects one eye at a time. Symptoms often include:

  • pain that’s worse when you move your eye
  • vision loss in one eye
  • vision loss in one specific area, such as your peripheral (side) vision or center vision
  • loss of your ability to see colors
  • seeing flashing lights in your affected eye

Nerve pain in the eye often resolves on its own. Prescription steroid medication is sometimes used to help reduce the swelling as well as relieve pain and discomfort.

In some cases, eye nerve pain is a symptom of an underlying condition like multiple sclerosis. See a doctor if you have pain that lasts longer than a week or more without getting better. And seek immediate medical attention if you experience sudden changes in your vision of any kind.

Your eye can get irritated or damaged from exposure to many types of chemicals that are common in everyday life, such as:

  • soaps
  • shampoos
  • cleaning products
  • smoke from cigarettes, vaping devices, fireplaces, or wood smoke
  • acid or alkali solutions
  • chlorine in pools or spas

Symptoms of chemical irritation include:

  • eye redness
  • eye pain
  • eye irritation
  • swelling of your eyelids
  • blurry vision
  • having difficulty keeping your eye open
  • a feeling like something is in your eye
  • vision loss

Treatment for a chemical irritation should start with washing the substance out of your eye.

Once your eye is clear, treatment depends on the severity of the irritation. You might not need treatment for mild irritation by substances like shampoo.

But seek medical care if you experience more severe irritation with symptoms that last 2 or more days without getting better. You’ll likely be prescribed antibiotics to help prevent infection and steroid drops or creams to keep swelling down as your eye heals.

When an object strikes your eye or comes in contact with your eye, it can result in a scratch or injury to the surface of the eye called a corneal abrasion.

This can be caused by any object that comes in contact with your eye and scratches against your cornea, including:

  • dust
  • sand
  • dirt
  • torn contact lenses
  • small pieces of wood

Symptoms of eye injuries can include:

  • eye pain
  • watery eyes
  • eye redness
  • a feeling like something is in your eye
  • sensitivity to light
  • headache

If you think there’s an object in your eyes, do the following right away to reduce the risk of the object scraping against your cornea and causing injury:

  1. Take out contact lenses (if you’re wearing them).
  2. Blink several times.
  3. Rinse your eyes out with warm water.
  4. Avoid rubbing your eyes until the irritation goes away.

Most minor corneal abrasions heal on their own in a day or 2.

Seek medical attention if:

  • there’s an object lodged in your eye that you can’t get out by yourself
  • your symptoms get worse over time with no obvious improvement

Wash your eyes out immediately if any chemicals splash into them.

Follow these steps to safely wash out your eyes:

  • Run clean, lukewarm water over your eye for at least 20 minutes with the lid of your affected eye held open. Use a shower head aimed at your forehead over your affected eye or the bridge of your nose if you need to wash both eyes. You can also turn your head under a running faucet at a sink or eyewash station.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water to make sure there are no chemicals on your hands.
  • Remove your contact lenses if they did not come out during the eye washing.
  • Don’t rub your eyes until the irritation stops or until a doctor says it’s okay.
  • Don’t use anything except water or saline solution in your eyes.
  • Seek emergency medical care immediately to be examined for any injury or damage to your eye.
  • Take a container of the chemical that got into your eye with you to the emergency room. Take a picture of the chemical container’s label if you’re not able to bring the container itself.

Some causes of eye pain can resolve on their own or with OTC treatments.

Other causes may benefit from medical attention. Visit a doctor, ophthalmologist, or other eye specialist if:

  • your vision is changing
  • you have eye pain
  • your eyes are swollen
  • you have eye discharge
  • your eyes are crusting
  • your eyelids are sticking together
  • you’re seeing flashing lights, shadows, or other visual disturbances
  • you have any eye symptoms that last longer than a week

Additionally, it’s important to seek emergency medical care if:

  • your vision suddenly changes
  • you have severe eye pain
  • you had a serious chemical burn to your eye
  • pain from an eye injury is getting worse
  • you have double vision after an eye injury
  • something is stuck in your eye after an eye injury

You can’t prevent every single eye itch or allergy, but there are steps you take to reduce eye irritation:

  • Get regular eye checkups to maintain eye health.
  • Always wash your hands, especially before eating and after using the bathroom.
  • Drink at least 64 ounces of water a day.
  • Wear protective eyewear around chemicals and debris.
  • Wear sunglasses with UV protection.
  • Wear contact lenses as directed.
  • Always remove daily-wear contact lenses before you go to bed.
  • Eat foods rich in vitamin A, including carrots and sweet potatoes.
  • Incorporate eye health boosting foods into your diet, such as avocados, tuna, peppers, and lima beans.

Many causes of eye pain can be resolved easily at home or with simple OTC treatments. But some eye conditions, such as infections, might need medical attention. You might also need to seek professional medical help if a substance or object gets into your eye.

Taking steps to prevent eye irritation can help reduce your risk of experiencing eye pain or irritation. You can help protect your eyes with regular eye checkups, safety goggles, wearing clean contact lenses, drinking plenty of water, and eating eye-healthy foods.