Written by Zawn VillinesReviewed by Alan Carter, PharmD
Most people experience red eyes at some point. The symptom is usually fleeting and annoying rather than long-lasting or dangerous.
Over-the-counter or prescription drops can treat red eyes. It’s important to determine why eyes are red before treating symptoms, however, since infections and some other medical issues can cause red eyes.
When to treat red eyes with drops
In most cases, dry eyes are merely a cosmetic concern. It’s fine to treat minor irritation, exhaustion, and occasional redness with eye drops.
People should note that anti-redness drops won’t treat underlying problems. People will probably have to keep using them if the cause is not dealt with.
Over-the-counter eye lubricating drops may treat and prevent minor dry eye, but prescription remedies tend to work better.
When to see a doctor
People don’t need to see a doctor every time their eyes are red. However, anyone who experiences any of the following symptoms will need medical treatment:
- Redness and blurry vision
- Redness and intense pain and itching
- Green or yellow discharge from the eyes
- Difficulty seeing
- Feelings of pressure in the eyes
- Chronically dry, itchy eyes
- Seasonal eye redness that might be allergies
Drops for treating red eyes
Over-the-counter remedies can safely treat most cases of mild to moderate red eyes. Popular remedies include:
- Naphazoline, which is found in drugs such as Clear Eyes Itchy Eye Relief. Naphazoline is a decongestant that can treat redness caused by allergic reactions and minor irritation.
- Tetrahydrozoline, which is found in drops such as Visine. Tetrahydrozoline is a decongestant that, like naphazoline, clears redness caused by allergy, exhaustion, and irritation.
- Eye lubricant drops. Many drops are available, most of which use lipids to mimic real tears. There is some debateamong eye doctors about whether preservatives in some eye drops are safe. Preservative-free drops are available.
A number of prescription remedies may help, particularly if an illness or infection caused the red eyes. A doctor might prescribe:
- Glaucomadrops to reduce pressure in the eyes
- Antibioticdrops or ointments to treat an infection in the eyes
- Prescription artificial tears, which can increase moisture in the eyes and reduce irritation
Who should avoid eye drops?
Redness-relieving drops are not safe for everyone. People with glaucoma should avoid over-the-counter remedies since some eye drops can increase pressure in the eye. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should talk to their doctors before using any eye remedy. Some drops can affect a developing baby or travel to breast milk.
People should talk to their doctor if they are in any doubt about red eyes. Eye redness is highly treatable, even when it’s caused by a serious medical condition.
Causes of red eyes
When the tiny blood vessels in the eye swell, the eyes look red and irritated. These vessels occasionally burst, producing more intense redness.
Red eyes can be caused by conditions ranging in severity from minor to sight-threatening. As a result, red eyes alone won’t help a doctor work out what’s wrong. They will need to consider other symptoms and the person’s health history to rule out most other causes.
When eyes are dry, the blood vessels can become irritated and inflamed. Some common causes of dry eye include:
- Dry weather, particularly during the winter months
- Illnesses such as arthritisand diabetes
- Hormonal changes during menopauseand pregnancy
- Medications that reduce the quantity of quality of tears
- Long-term contact use
- Inadequate sleep
It’s usually safe to treat dry eyes with over-the-counter remedies, but if someone often experiences dry eyes, they should talk to an eye doctor.
Minor eye irritation can redden the eyes with inflammation. Some common sources of eye irritation include:
- Sun exposure and tanning beds
- Excessively rubbing the eyes
- Air pollution
- Chlorinated pool water
- An object in the eye, such as an eyelash or grain of sand
Irritation can continue even after the object has been removed from the eye. Eye irritation usually goes away after a few hours. If symptoms get worse, a doctor should be seen.
A wide range of infections can damage the eye. Eye injuries can become infected when dirt and bacteria enter the wound. People can also get an eye infection from eye products such as contact lenses and mascara.
Some eye infections are contagious from person to person.
Some of the most common eye infections are:
- Blepharitis: An itchy, scaly infection on the eyelids that is not contagious
- Infected eyelash follicles: Known as styes, these infections produce a small bump and usually go away on their own
- Conjunctivitis: Better known as pink eye, this infection can be either viral or bacterial
It’s difficult to diagnose the type of infection someone has based solely on symptoms. Anyone experiencing the following symptoms should see an eye doctor:
- Intense eye pain
- Difficulty opening their eyes
- Green discharge from the eye
- Light sensitivity
An injury to the eye, such as a scratch or blow, can cause redness, irritation, and bleeding. Eye injuries can become infected, and may threaten vision if left untreated.
Anyone who injures their eye should see an eye doctor immediately. If their eye is bleeding or they cannot see, they should go to an emergency room.
Glaucoma damages the optic nerve and can destroy sight if left untreated. When glaucoma raises pressure in the eye, it can produce redness and pain.
Changes in vision, difficulty seeing to the side, and tunnel vision can signal glaucoma. Anyone who experiences these symptoms should consult an eye doctor and avoid using eye drops.
The uvea is the pigmented portion of the eye. Uveitis is an inflammation of this region that can cause intense redness in the iris, the outer portion of the uvea.
Anyone who experiences sudden redness or pain concentrated in the colorful center of the eye should see an eye doctor.
Drugs and alcohol
Drugs and alcohol can dilate blood vessels and cause inflammation, making eyes look red. This type of redness is usually harmless, but if eyes are often red due to alcohol or drugs, substance abuse treatment may be needed.
Left untreated, eye infections can cause sores on the eyes. These ulcers are often red, painful, and endanger vision.
If anyone notices redness in a single area, has symptoms of an infection, or sees a sore in their eye, they should seek immediate medical care.
Written by Zawn Villines