Itchy eyes are a common problem. The cause may involve the eyelid or the membrane covering the eye. In some cases, the itchiness results from dryness.
An eye doctor called an ophthalmologist or optometrist can determine the cause and the best approach to treatment.
This article explores the causes of itchy eyes, the best treatments, including over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription eye drops, and when to consult a doctor.
A number of different eye conditions can cause itchiness, including:
There are three kinds of conjunctivitis:
- Viral: This stems from the same virus that causes the common cold, and it is just as contagious. The infection generally goes away on its own in
7–14 days. Artificial tears can relieve some symptoms, but severe cases may need prescription anti-inflammatory eye drops.
- Bacterial: This type is also highly contagious, and it occurs with large amounts of pus. The symptoms usually resolve without treatment within
2–5 days, but a person may need prescription antibacterial drops.
- Allergic: This type is not contagious. An allergic reaction leads to itchiness and inflammation in the eyes, nasal passages, or both. Artificial tears can relieve associated dryness and help wash the irritant from the eyes. A person with allergic conjunctivitis may find it helpful to keep their artificial tears refrigerated.
One type of allergic conjunctivitis is giant papillary conjunctivitis. This affects the inner eyelids and most often results from wearing contact lenses. Doctors recommend reducing the amount of time spent wearing contacts, and they may recommend a type of prescription or OTC medication called mast cell stabilizers.
Eye drops containing steroids may ease some severe cases of allergic conjunctivitis, but doctors generally only prescribe corticosteroids for
Decongestant eye drops are available over the counter, but eye doctors do not recommend using them continuously, as doing so can cause “rebound” inflammation as soon as a person stops using them.
Topical antihistamines are safer to use for longer periods, as they can ease the body’s response to allergens and reduce overall itchiness.
Dry eye involves the body not making enough tears or tears to keep the eyes moist and comfortable. Common symptoms are stinging or burning sensations and frequent watering of the eyes. Treatments may include artificial tears that contain cyclosporine (Restasis) or lifitegrast (Xiidra).
Blepharitis is a condition that causes the eyelids to become irritated and swollen. A person may also notice crusty flakes on their eyelashes. The associated buildup of oil and flakes may lead to dryness and itchiness.
Treatment for blepharitis includes applying warm compresses and keeping the eyes clean and free of crust. A doctor may also prescribe an oral antibiotic, such as doxycycline.
Some other causes of dry eyes include:
- prescription drugs, such as antidepressants
- changes in hormone levels, such as during the use of birth control pills
- environmental irritants, such as smoke or high altitudes
- some autoimmune diseases, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis
- certain medical conditions, such as diabetes
- certain deficiencies, such as a vitamin A deficiency
- eye strain, which may result from long periods of driving or working with a computer screen
Relieving the itchiness involves matching the medication to the underlying cause.
A person might choose one of the following prescription or OTC drop varieties:
- antihistamines: Lastacaft
- mast cell stabilizers: Alomide, Crolom, Alocril
- anti-inflammatory eye drops: Acular LS, Acuvail
- antibacterial eye drops: Azasite, Tobrex, Polytrim
- eye drops with steroids: Lotemax, Alrex, Durezol
- antihistamines and mast cell stabilizers: Patanol, Pataday
- artificial tears: Freshkote, Refresh, TheraTears, Bion Tears, Visine Tears, GenTeal, Systane, Blink Tears, Murine Tears
- decongestants: Visine LR
- decongestants and antihistamines: Opcon-A, Naphcon-A, Visine-A
- eye drops with antihistamines and mast cell stabilizers: Alaway, Claritin Eye, Visine All Day Eye Itch Relief, Refresh Eye Itch Relief, Zaditor
Eye drops that are free from preservatives, such as Freshkote, may be better for people who use eye drops frequently.
Eye allergies occur when the immune system reacts to an allergen in the environment. When an allergen comes into contact with antibodies in eye cells, the cells respond by releasing histamine. This reaction may cause tiny blood vessels to leak and the eyes to become itchy, red, swollen, and watery.
Millions of people in the United States alone have itchy eyes caused by allergies. Other symptoms may include an itchy and runny nose and a cough.
The following may trigger this type of allergic reaction:
- outdoor allergens, such as pollens from grass, trees, and weeds
- indoor allergens, such as dust mites and mold
- irritants, such as cigarette smoke and perfume
If a mild reaction occurs only at specific times of the year, the issue is called seasonal allergic conjunctivitis. In North America, the symptoms may peak between April and May, when the pollen count in the air is higher.
Eye drops that contain antihistamines and decongestants can help manage the symptoms.
The following eye drops are available over the counter:
- antihistamines and mast cell stabilizers: Zaditor, Alaway, Panadol, Pataday
- decongestants: Vasocon
- decongestants and antihistamines: Opcon-A, Naphcon-A, Visine-A
Others, available by prescription, include:
- antihistamines: Optivar, Emadine
- mast cell stabilizers: Crolom, Alomide, Alamast
A doctor may recommend another approach, such as corticosteroids, immunotherapy, or treatment with medications called antileukotrienes. It is important to consult a healthcare professional before starting treatment with any new medication.
To prevent an eye allergy, doctors recommend people avoid the allergen as much as possible.
Factors to consider when choosing eye drops
To determine the cause of the itchiness, a person’s eye doctor might ask whether:
- The itchiness developed quickly or slowly.
- The person wears contact lenses.
- The issue is seasonal.
- The eyes also water
- There is a burning sensation.
- The person has allergies, asthma, skin rashes, or eczema.
- There is a sensation of something being stuck in the eye.
- Some situations, such as exposure to cats, dogs, or pollen, seem to trigger episodes of itchiness.
- The person has started using any new products, such as soap or cosmetics, in the past 1–3 days.
Having itchy eyes can be uncomfortable and may affect self-esteem or make a person reluctant to go outside, where there may be allergens. However, it should not affect vision.
If having itchy eyes is interfering with the quality of life, a person should contact a doctor.
Some causes, such as bacterial conjunctivitis, can sweep through environments such as schools. Anyone who has been exposed to the underlying pathogen needs treatment.
While some eye medications are available over the counter, it can be difficult to find the best option, and working with a doctor can help.
It is especially important to contact a doctor if there is a great deal of inflammation and redness in or around one or both eyes.
A range of eye conditions can cause itchiness. In some cases, allergens such as smoke, pollen, dust, dander, or fragrances are responsible.
Different medicated eye drops can treat different causes of itchy eyes, and a person may be able to access the right treatment over the counter. It is important to receive guidance from a healthcare professional before making a choice.