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Burning eyes can be both uncomfortable and concerning. In some cases, the cause is clear, and people can use over-the-counter medications to treat the symptoms. However, some causes of burning eyes require specialized treatment.
Due to the range of possible causes, anyone experiencing burning eyes should speak with a doctor as soon as possible. The cause and severity of this symptom will determine the treatment options.
In this article, we look at the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of burning eyes.
People often refer to stinging or irritation of the eyes as burning eyes. Common causes of burning eyes include:
- eye redness
- a gritty sensation as though something is in the eye
- blurred vision
Also known as allergic conjunctivitis, eye allergies occur when irritating substances get into the eye. The body responds to these substances by producing histamines, which can cause burning eyes.
Common triggers of eye allergies include dust, pollen, mold spores, smoke, perfumes, pet dander, and foods.
Other possible symptoms of eye allergies include:
- itching of the eyes
- sensitivity to light
Overexposure to the UV light from the sun’s rays can cause eye sunburn, which is also known as photokeratitis.
In addition to burning eyes, the symptoms may include:
- light sensitivity
- a gritty feeling
- halos around lights
Additional symptoms of ocular rosacea may include:
- light sensitivity
- red or bloodshot eyes
- the feeling of something being in the eye
A pterygium is a growth of fleshy tissue on the white part of the eye. It usually occurs on the part of the eye nearest to the nose, although it can also appear on the outer portion of the eye. Experts believe that it results from a combination of dry eyes and UV light.
In addition to the appearance of a growth, the symptoms include:
- burning eyes
- redness and swelling of the eyes
In some cases, the growth can extend to cover the cornea, which can affect vision.
The treatment options for burning eyes will depend on the underlying cause. For example, if burning eyes are due to a bacterial infection, a doctor may recommend antibiotic eye drops to treat the infection.
However, the general aim of treatment is to relieve eye dryness.
Other interventions that a doctor may recommend for burning eyes include:
- cleaning the eyelid margins near the base of the eyelashes using a gentle cleanser and lukewarm water and then gently patting the eyes dry
- applying lubricating eye drops to reduce redness and improve eye comfort
- making a warm compress by soaking a clean, soft washcloth in warm water and then placing it over the eyes
- using antihistamine eye drops or tablets — which are available online — to reduce the effects of allergic reactions in the eyes
- taking steps to avoid known irritants
- taking supplements such as fish oil and flaxseed, which can help reduce the effects of dry eyes and are especially useful for people with ocular rosacea
- drinking plenty of water throughout the day to help keep the eyes moist and reduce dryness
- taking regular breaks from using a computer screen to help reduce eye dryness and irritation
- wearing sunglasses to protect the eyes from UV light and further irritation
For very dry eyes, a doctor may prescribe lubricating eye drops or artificial tears. Eye ointments can also help with pterygia if eye drops are not sufficient.
In rare instances, a doctor may recommend surgery. Examples of surgery include the insertion of plugs into the tear ducts to prevent tears from draining away from the eyes and the removal of the pterygium if it interferes with vision.
Identifying the underlying cause of burning eyes is important. People experiencing burning eyes should speak with a doctor as soon as possible.
The doctor will usually start the diagnostic procedure by taking a medical history and asking the person about their symptoms. They will likely ask when the symptoms started, what makes them worse or better, and whether the person has a history of any other eye-related conditions.
The doctor will also review the medications the person is taking. Some medicines, such as decongestants, can contribute to burning eyes.
The next step will be to carry out a physical examination of the eyes. The doctor will examine the eyes for signs of irregularities, dryness, and damage. They may use scopes or other specialized equipment to view the eyes more clearly and closely.
Eye doctors may also apply drops to the eyes that allow them to observe the flow of tears and moisture levels in the eyes.
Although burning eyes can be painful, they are often highly treatable. Treatments focus on correcting any underlying causes and reducing eye dryness.
If a person has more severe symptoms, such as vision loss, they should see an eye doctor immediately.