Eye irritation can kind of hijack your brain. It is literally impossible to focus on anything else. But as annoying as it is, you might just try to valiantly suffer through eye irritation on your own, armed with eye drops and a handful of prayers to the ocular gods to make it stop already. It’s not like your eyes actually hurt, so no need to see a doctor, right? Wrong.
Here are six times you should see a doctor about eye irritation.
- One or both of your eyes is red and itchy.
This could signal pink eye, aka conjunctivitis. It sparks an inflammatory reaction as your eye tries to fight off the infection, Dawn Goedde, O.D., an associate professor of clinical optometry at The Ohio State University, tells SELF. That leads to symptoms like redness, itching, and excessive tearing—basically all signs that something’s up.
You’ve probably heard that pink eye happens when you get poop particles in your eye. That is indeed one cause of the bacterial form of this condition, according to the American Optometric Association (AOA). But a slew of other things can also cause pink eye, including pollen and other allergens. This is known as allergic conjunctivitis, and to be frank, it sucks.
“I see this day in and day out,” Laura M. Periman, M.D., director of dry eye services and clinical research at Evergreen Eye Center, tells SELF. “When spring hits, we see a big rash of allergic conjunctivitis.” You can actually get this even if you don’t think you have allergies. “If there is a high enough pollen count, you’re going to react even if you don’t have traditional allergies,” Dr. Periman says.
If you suspect you’re dealing with pink eye, it’s important to see a doctor so they can recommend the right treatment, which varies based on the cause. If your pink eye is viral or allergic, you might need to just wait it out, treating symptoms with things like cool compresses and artificial tears, the Mayo Clinic says. If your conjunctivitis is bacterial, you’ll need antibiotic drops to clear it up. That’s why it’s so key to see a doctor—you might think you know what’s causing your eye irritation, but you need to know for sure in order to kick it.
- Your eye feels scratchy and gritty.
You could be dealing with dry eye, Dr. Periman says. Dry eye is a condition that happens when your eyes can’t lubricate themselves properly, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI). Dry eye usually happens when either the amount or quality of your tears can’t keep your eyes moist enough. Enter feelings like scratchiness, grittiness, dryness, and burning, among others.
If you have a mild case of dry eye, you may be able to get by with rewetting drops. But if your dry eye symptoms are more severe, the NEI says your doctor may recommend that you try prescription medications to keep your eyes lubricated, or potentially undergo a medical procedure to insert punctal plugs (devices to partially or completely block your tear ducts) so your tears don’t drain too much.
Dry eye doesn’t just feel miserable—it can lead to complications like eye infections or damage to your corneas (the clear, dome-shaped surfaces of your eyes), according to the Mayo Clinic. If you think you have it, you should absolutely see a doctor for guidance.
- Your eyes are sensitive to light.
There are several things that can cause this, including dry eye. But looking at a screen for an extended period of time is a huge eye mistake that can lead to sensitivity to light, Dr. Periman says. Zoning out in front of your computer or phone has two major ripple effects, she explains: You blink less, which means you’re not spreading tears across your eyes often enough and increases the odds you’ll develop dry eye, and you could also wind up with digital eye strain.
Digital eye strain can make your eyes feel tired, sensitive to light, and dry, according to the AOA. The best treatment is to limit your screen time, but hello, this isn’t the 1800s. Instead, take some small measures that can make a big difference. For example, you can ensure the brightness and contrast of your screen make it as easy as possible for you to read. You can also reduce glare on your screen (especially from overhead lighting and windows) or buy an anti-glare screen cover if lighting isn’t under your control.
Beyond that, it’s important to give your eyes a break. Try following the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, shift your eyes to look at an object at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. You should also remind yourself to blink often so you’re spreading fresh tears across your eyes to keep them moisturized and happy.
Although these are all good steps to take, if you’re dealing with sensitivity to light, it’s still a good idea to have a doctor take a look at your eyes, Dr. Periman says.
- You have a ton of dried goop on your eyelashes.
It’s normal to wake up with “sleep” in your eyes—you know, those little eye boogers that magically appear overnight. They’re a result of extra tear fluid building up as you sleep. But if you suddenly have an uptick in eye discharge—especially if it forms a crust on your eyelashes as you sleep—you’re probably dealing with something that needs treatment.
Pink eye is one potential cause of excessive eye gunk. So is blepharitis, an eye disorder that happens when your eyelids get all inflamed due to something like a bacterial infection or a skin condition such as rosacea, according to the AOA. That inflammatory response can cause eye irritation, Dr. Goedde says.
There are two main types of blepharitis, per the AOA: anterior blepharitis, which happens at the outside front edge of your eyelid where your eyelashes attach, and posterior blepharitis, which impacts the inner edge of your eyelid that touches your eyeball. Either way, neither feels especially great to your eyes.
There are a few at-home remedies you can try to clear things up, like using warm compresses or artificial tears. But some cases of blepharitis require more intense treatment, like antibiotics, so seeing a doctor is your best bet.
- You feel like there’s something stuck in your eye.
Some conditions, like dry eye, can cause what’s known as foreign body sensation, which is when you’re convinced something has attached itself to your eyeball. But you could also actually have something stuck in there, too, even if you didn’t notice anything entering your eye.
Foreign bodies can cause irritation in one of two ways, Dr. Goedde says. If something is embedded in your cornea, you might feel it every time you blink. And if it’s lodged into your eyelid, it can scratch your cornea—and that will cause more irritation, or even pain.
You might be able to get the object out safely by yourself. The Mayo Clinic recommends washing your hands, then trying to flush the foreign body out with a gentle stream of clean, warm water, either by using a small drinking glass to pour the water into your eye or by using a showerhead. But if the object really feels embedded in your eye, or if it’s large and you’re worried about removing it safely, don’t try this at home—see a doctor ASAP instead.
- Your vision is blurry or otherwise getting worse in some way.
If you can’t see as well as usual and are also dealing with eye irritation, call your eye doctor and ask for an appointment immediately. This could be a symptom of a serious eye problem like a deep injury to your cornea or keratitis, an inflammation of your cornea that can lead to permanent vision damage if left untreated. No matter the cause, you don’t want to mess with this.
When in doubt, do your best to at least check in with your eye doctor about eye irritation that seems strange to you.
In general, anything that feels like severe eye irritation should have you calling in medical reinforcements, Dr. Periman says. You should even see your doctor if your eye irritation feels pretty low-grade but sticks around for a week or two. We know, we know—you’re up to your eyeballs in things to do, and squeezing in a doctor’s visit on short notice might be hard. But given how important your eyes are, you really shouldn’t chance it.