Whenever your eyes are burning or tearing, it can be difficult to think about anything else. Many eye conditions tend to affect both eyes at once, but some only cause tearing or redness in one eye at a time.
Even if only one eye is affected, you probably want to know what’s going on, so you can treat the problem and get relief as quickly as possible.
Let’s take a look at some of the more common causes of — and treatments for — watering, burning symptoms that only affect one eye.
A foreign object in your eye, such as a speck of dust or sand, can feel like it’s scraping the surface of your affected eye.
You may experience symptoms like:
- excessive blinking
- feeling of pressure or discomfort in your eye
If you’ve been cleaning your house, working on a DIY project, or spending time outside in windy weather, you might be more likely to have a foreign object swept into one of your eyes.
If you have a small foreign object in your eye, you may be able to flush it out with saline solution or artificial tears. Stay calm, keep eye movement to a minimum, and make sure you wash your hands before you touch your eye. Don’t put any pressure on your eye if there’s something stuck in it.
Seek emergency medical attention if there might be metal, wood, or glass in your eye, or if the object in your eye is larger than a tiny speck.
Protect your eyes during high risk activities
Always wear eye protection when working with materials that have the potential to enter your eyes, such as wood, metal, glass, or chemicals.
Eye injuries from chemical exposure are another possible cause of burning and watering in one eye. These types of eye injuries can occur at work, particularly in industries where chemicals are used, or at home from common household products.
Chemical injuries to the eyes may be divided into three categories:
- Alkali burns. These are the most dangerous. Chemicals with a high alkaline content can penetrate the surface of the eye and cause damage to the internal and external parts of the eye. Examples of high alkali chemicals include ammonias, lyes, and potassium hydroxides. They can be found in household cleaning products used for toilets, clogged drains, and ovens.
- Acid burns. Although acid burns aren’t as dangerous as alkali burns, they can still cause damage to the eye. Examples of chemical acids include sulfuric acid, nitric acid, and acetic acid. These chemicals may be found in household products like nail polish removers and automobile batteries.
- Irritants. This category of chemicals has a neutral pH and tends to irritate the eye rather than damage it. Examples are pepper spray and pH-neutral household cleaners.
If your eyes have been exposed to a chemical, the first thing you should do is irrigate them thoroughly. Work settings typically provide emergency eyewash stations with sterile saline solutions.
If you’re at home and don’t have access to a saline solution, you can wash out your eye with tap water in a cold or lukewarm shower.
You should then call a doctor or a Poison Control Center (800-222-1222) for further instructions.
Sometimes falling asleep with your contact lenses on, or wearing your contact lenses for an extended amount of time, can cause eye redness and irritation. It also can cause itching and tearing.
Contact lenses can sometimes rip or tear apart in your eye, making symptoms worse. This is most likely to occur if you’re wearing your contacts for longer than recommended (for example, extending daily-use contact lenses for multiple uses).
Misuse of contact lenses can cause serious eye infections.
If a contact lens is what’s causing irritation and redness in one eye, carefully remove the contact. Flush your eyes with saline or artificial tears. Don’t put a new contact lens in your eye right away. Give your eyes a break from your lenses by wearing glasses.
Red or irritated eyes are not uncommon when you get out of a chlorinated swimming pool. Pollutants, like urine and sweat, can combine with chlorine to create chloramines, which bother the eyes.
If you notice redness or burning in your eyes after chlorine exposure, splash your eyes with clean, cool water. Use saline or artificial tears to rinse the chlorine out of your eyes.
Redness symptoms should disappear within 30 minutes of swimming. Be careful to avoid swimming with contact lenses in your eyes. You should also consider wearing goggles to keep chlorine and other pool-related pollutants out of your eyes.
Dry eye symptoms can include:
- blurry vision
- feeling that grit or sand is stuck in your eye
Artificial tears specifically made to treat dry eye can provide relief. You may also want to change your immediate environment to avoid the wind and spend more time in a room with a humidifier.
As well, people who work at a computer blink less often, which can lead to dry eye. If you spend a lot of time in front of a computer, give your eyes a break by looking away from the screen every 20 minutes. And remind yourself to blink often to lubricate your eyes.
- blurred vision
- eye irritation
A pinguecula, similar to a pterygium, is another potential cause for burning and watering in one eye. These noncancerous growths develop on the conjunctiva, the thin layer of tissue that covers the white part of your eye.
Pterygiums and pingueculas typically only affect one of your eyes. Often, there are no other symptoms. If pterygiums grow large enough, they may interfere with your vision. However, this isn’t the case for pingueculas.
If you do have symptoms as a result of a pterygium or a pinguecula, your doctor may prescribe eye drops to reduce inflammation. If symptoms don’t subside, you may need surgery to remove the growth.
To avoid getting pterygiums (or pingueculas) in the future, always wear sunglasses outside and treat dry eye with eye drops.
While blepharitis typically affects both eyes, it’s possible to have only one eye experience symptoms.
Blepharitis can also become infected, leading to additional symptoms, such as colored discharge and an infected lump on your eye called a stye.
If you have blepharitis, you can use a clean, warm compress to try to reduce inflammation and loosen the clog from your oil gland. Washing the eyelids with a cleanser designed specifically for this purpose can also help.
If home remedies don’t work, you’ll need to get a prescription for steroids or an ointment to prevent an infection. Infected blepharitis needs to be treated with antibiotics.
There are also in-office procedures for blepharitis, such as microblepharoexfoliation and thermal pulsation.
Conjunctivitis (pink eye) symptoms often start in one eye, but the condition can spread and affect both eyes at once.
Pink eye symptoms can include:
- gritty feeling
- abnormal discharge
The treatment for conjunctivitis depends on whether you have bacterial, viral, or allergic forms of the condition. If your conjunctivitis is triggered by allergies, antihistamine drops, and a cool compress may be enough to treat it at home.
Both viral and bacterial forms have the potential for spread, although viral conjunctivitis is more contagious. Viral conjunctivitis cannot be treated, so you’ll need to wait it out for 7 to 10 days. Bacterial conjunctivitis often needs to be treated with a round of prescription antibiotic eye drops.
Herpes zoster and herpes simplex type 1 are viruses that can cause pain and redness in just one eye.
- Herpes zoster is the virus that causes chickenpox or shingles. When this virus affects an eye, it’s called herpes zoster ophthalmicus.
- Herpes simplex 1 typically causes cold sores and fever blisters on the lips and face. When this virus affects an eye, it’s called herpes simplex keratitis. Herpes simplex 2 also has the potential to cause herpes simplex keratitis, though it’s less common.
Herpes infections of the eye are known as herpetic eye diseases.
Talk with an eye doctor if you suspect you may have an eye infection caused by the herpes virus. Treatment for herpes in the eye usually involves antiviral eye drops or pills. Corticosteroid drops may be recommended in certain cases if the infection is affecting the cornea.
Just like your skin, your eyes can be damaged by the sun’s UV rays. When this happens, it can impact both of your eyes, or just affect one eye.
You might notice symptoms like:
Try to self-treat with rest and a cool compress. If that doesn’t work, try an over-the-counter pain reliever. Keep your sunglasses close by when you’re treating a sunburned eye.
Rosacea can affect your eyes as well as your skin. Ocular rosacea is an inflammatory eye condition that can impact both eyes at once or just one.
Rosacea triggers, such as diet, stress, or alcohol, can also cause ocular rosacea to flare up.
Artificial tears and eyelid washes may help soothe symptoms of ocular rosacea. Avoid over-the-counter eye drops designed to treat red eye symptoms, as they won’t work for ocular rosacea.
A warm compress may also help to relieve blocked glands and reduce inflammation. You may want to speak with a dermatologist if you’re experiencing frequent ocular rosacea flares.
A corneal ulcer is a sore that forms on the cornea, the clear layer of tissue that covers the eye. It’s usually caused by an infection from small scratches or injuries to the eye.
Those who wear contact lenses tend to be at most risk for this type of eye ulcer — especially if they sleep in their lenses.
Symptoms can occur in just one eye and may be similar to an eye infection:
- swelling of the eyelid
- sensitivity to light
- blurred vision
If you suspect you have either a corneal ulcer or an eye infection, see a doctor. Both conditions require medical attention. Corneal ulcers are serious and should be treated immediately.
An eye doctor will prescribe an antibacterial or antiviral medication to treat the underlying infection. If your eye is swollen and inflamed, corticosteroid eye drops may also be prescribed.
In rare cases, a doctor may prescribe antifungal or antiprotozoal medications.
- sensitivity to light
- gritty sensation in the eye
Episcleritis can be mistaken for pink eye, and, like pink eye, it may go away on its own.
However, if your eye is very painful and your vision is blurry, you should seek immediate medication attention. You may have an eye condition called scleritis, which can lead to eye damage if not treated.
Anterior uveitis is an inflammation of the eye’s middle layer. It’s often called “iritis” because it affects the iris, or colored part of the eye.
Anterior uveitis may be caused by trauma to the eye or a foreign body in the eye. It may also be associated with certain health conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, syphilis, tuberculosis, or herpes simplex.
- redness and soreness
- blurred vision
- sensitivity to light
- small, irregularly shaped pupils
If you’re experiencing the above symptoms, talk with a doctor.
Anterior uveitis is typically treated with eye drops to reduce pain and steroid drops to reduce irritation and inflammation. With treatment, anterior uveitis will usually go away within a few days.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an auto-immune condition where your immune system attacks healthy tissue in your joints. The condition can also cause symptoms of redness and tearing in your eyes.
It’s important to note that RA by itself doesn’t develop in the eyes or cause them to water. But having RA increases your risk of developing ocular conditions, like anterior uveitis or episcleritis. And these conditions can cause burning or watering in the eye.
A cool compress can give you temporary relief from pain and redness caused by RA. You’ll need to speak with a doctor about RA symptoms that affect one or both of your eyes, so you can avoid long-term damage to your eyes.
Topical lubricants and prescription eye drops may be recommended by your doctor to treat symptoms.
In some cases, you can treat symptoms of redness and tearing of the eye yourself. But there are certain additional symptoms that should not be ignored.
Seek medical attention if you have burning and tearing in one eye in addition to any of the following:
- severe eye pain, especially if it’s related to chemical exposure or a foreign object stuck in your eye
- sudden changes to your vision
- symptoms that worsen or don’t go away after a few days
- symptoms of an infection, such as green or yellow discharge or a fever
- sensitivity to light
You should also talk with a doctor about your symptoms if your immune system is already compromised due to treatment for another condition, such as HIV or cancer.
Watering and burning in one eye can be painful, but most common causes of these symptoms can be treated at home.
When home remedies don’t help soothe symptoms (or if they get worse), it’s time to speak with an eye doctor about other treatment strategies.