Multiple factors can result in itchy eyes, from a problem with the eye itself to an allergy trigger from the environment around you.
Can’t stop itching your eyes and not sure what the culprit might be? It can be extremely annoying, but itchy eyes are very common and usually easy to treat. Multiple factors can result in itchy eyes, from a problem with the eye itself to an allergy trigger from the environment around you, and effective relief requires working out what the cause might be.
While itchy eyes aren’t usually an indiction of anything more serious, eye health should be a top priority for everyone. The Royal College of General Practitioners state that 50 per cent of sight loss could be avoided through improvements in eye care and early detection of problems, so if something is bothering your eyes always consult your doctor or optician.
Dr Juliet McGrattan shares 11 common causes of itchy eyes, plus advice on how to treat itchy eyes and the warning signs it could be something more serious:
- Hay fever
From March to September, pollen from trees, plants and weeds is carried in the air. In some people this causes hay fever, an allergy where the pollen triggers an immune response in the body. The release of histamine from cells results in a myriad of symptoms which includes itchy and often watery eyes. This may be the only symptom but it may be accompanied by sneezing, skin rashes and a tight chest.
✔️Try this: Wear sunglasses to reduce the amount of pollen getting in your eyes. Wash your face when you come in from being outside. Speak to your pharmacist about antihistamine eye drops and other medications you can use to relieve your symptoms
Whenever your body is exposed to something it recognises as alien, it can trigger an allergic response. That may be an allergy to something you have used around your eye such as make-up or something more general such as food you’ve eaten. Itchy eyes can be the first symptom of an allergy. There may be swelling and soreness of the eyes too. Severe allergies can result in tongue and throat swelling, skin rashes and the serious condition of anaphylaxis.
✔️Try this: Look out for your allergy triggers so you can avoid them. Wash away the allergen from the skin if possible. Antihistamine tablets reduce allergy symptoms so talk to your pharmacist about using these.
⚠️ Anaphylaxis is the severest form of allergic reaction and is a medical emergency. If someone feels faint, finds it hard to breathe or experiences a fast heartbeat in reaction to an allergy, you should dial 999 for an ambulance.
- Dry eyes
Tears protect our eyes and keep them moist. If tear production decreases which can happen naturally with age, eyes can become dry and itchy. Surprisingly, sometimes dry eyes are actually watery. The eye tries to counteract the dryness by producing more tears but if the tear ducts are blocked then the tears can’t drain away.
✔️Try this: Simple dry eyes can be eased by using a lubricating eye drop several times a day. These are available to buy over-the-counter in the pharmacy. If eyes are excessively watery, speak to your GP who can refer you to an eye clinic if they suspect blocked tear ducts.
Conjunctivitis is inflammation of the conjunctiva, the membrane on the surface of the eye. This is usually caused by a virus but can be bacterial or allergic. Along with itchy eyes, it’s common to have redness, soreness, watering or a sticky eye discharge. Viral conjunctivitis often goes along with respiratory infections such as the common cold and you might feel a little unwell in yourself. Conjunctivitis can be very infectious and the risk of passing it on to others is high. Conjunctivitis caused by allergies is not contagious.
✔️Try this: Most mild, viral cases of conjunctivitis will settle on their own after a few days. Try not to touch your eyes and wash your hands thoroughly after touching your face. Use cooled, boiled water and a cotton pad to wipe away any crusting. Dark sunglasses can help if bright light is bothering you. You can buy drops to ease discomfort from the pharmacy. If these are ineffective or the pharmacist suspects a bacterial cause, then they might suggest antibiotic drops which most adults can buy without a prescription.
The lid margin, where the lashes grow from, is a common source of itchy eyes. Inflammation of the eye lid, also known as blepharitis, goes hand in hand with dry eyes. There is often crusting and soreness along the lower or upper lids. It can be caused by dry irritated skin or an infection.
✔️Try this: Lid hygiene is key. Use a warm flannel compress over your eyes and gently massage your eyes. Use a cotton wool bud dipped into dilute baby shampoo and wipe along your lash margin once or twice daily. If dry eyes are a problem, use lubricating eye drops from the pharmacy. If symptoms are not easing or your pharmacist or doctor suspect infection they may advise antibiotic treatment such as fusidic acid eye drops.
Also known as a hordeolum, styes are those annoying red swollen bulges that appear on the upper or lower eye lids. They are caused by inflammation or infection of either an eye lash follicle or an eye lid gland. They can feel sore and are often itchy. Styes are more common if you suffer from blepharitis.
✔️Try this: There’s an old wives’ tale that you should rub a gold ring on styes but if you prefer something more useful then a warm compress held over the eye can help to ease discomfort. Don’t try to burst a stye. They usually go away on their own within a week but stubborn, particularly painful or large ones might require an antibiotic or even lancing. Keeping your eyes clean can help prevent them.
- Contact lenses
Contact lenses are soft, thin and breathable but they can still cause problems. Itchy eyes might indicate dryness, overuse of lenses or an infection. Sometimes it can be the chemicals used to clean lenses that causes itchy eyes rather than the lenses themselves.
✔️Try this: Remove your contact lenses and visit your optician. Serious eye infections can develop in contact lens wearers. If it’s lens related and a recurrent problem, you may be able to switch to a different type of lens. You may be advised to use lubricating eye drops. Preservative-free lens cleaning solutions are available if this is the source of irritation.
- Chemical irritation
Chemicals can cause irritation of the eyes resulting in itching, soreness and watering. This could be sweat or sunscreen trickling down from your forehead. It could also be something in the environment around you such as chemical fumes, traffic pollution or smoke.
✔️Try this: Avoidance is the key but isn’t always possible. Always use safety goggles if you’re working directly with chemicals and consider wearing glasses and a hat with a brim to help protect your eyes when you’re out and about. Wash away sweat and sunscreen and if you’ve splashed any chemical directly into your eye, immediately wash your eye thoroughly and go to your local A&E department for emergency care.
- Foreign objects
Foreign objects such as bits of dust, dirt or sand that fly around in the air can cause eye itching. Eye lashes, blinking and tears generally keep these particles out of our eyes but they can still cause irritation and itching. Occasionally a small particle remains in the eye and can scratch the cornea (surface of the eye) this usually leads to pain and visual problems rather than simple itching.
✔️Try this: Take extra care on windy days. Wear safety glasses or goggles if you’re working in a dusty environment. Wash out any particles that get into the eye and see your doctor if you experience pain or any problems with the sight in your eye.
- Drug reaction
All medications have their side effects. If you are using eye drops or ointments for any reason, then your eyes may react to them by feeling itchy. It might be mild and short-lived but it could be longer-lasting suggesting an intolerance to the medication. Sometimes medications taken by mouth might produce side effects which affect the eyes. For example, dry and therefore itchy eyes can be caused by some antidepressants and acne medications.
✔️Try this: Ask your doctor what you can expect from an eye medication when it is prescribed, is there likely to be an initial discomfort or itch? If you are having any longer lasting eye itching or other symptoms that you think are related to a medication, then contact your doctor for advice.
- Lifestyle factors
Itchy, puffy eyes can result from an unhealthy lifestyle. Feeling stressed, sleep deprivation or constantly rubbing your eyes can make them sore and itchy. Excess screen time including long stints at the computer or studying aren’t appreciated by our eyes. Our eye health is often a reflection of our general health so we should always take notice of it.
✔️Try this: Do what you can to minimise stress and maximise sleep. This is often easier said than done but looking after our general health will have an impact on our eye health too. Pacing work and study time and scheduling breaks away from screens is beneficial. Exercise improves eye health, relieves stress and aids sleep so make sure you prioritise it.