Cold compresses are a safe, effective home remedy for eye discomfort. People can easily make them using household items and use them to relieve a range of ailments, including eye problems.

A cold compress can relieve symptoms such as swelling, pain, and dryness, so it can help people with dry eyes, pinkeye, and eye pain.

As cold compresses constrict blood vessels, they can also improve the appearance of dark circles and the discomfort of puffy eyes.

In some cases, using a warm compress may be a suitable treatment for eye problems. People can also try prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) eye drops.

Read more about the eye conditions that a cold compress can treat, including how to make them and what to consider before using one.

a person with eye pain using a cold compressShare on Pinterest
Tom Le Goff/Getty Images

Cold compresses can relieve the symptoms of various eye problems, particularly those that do not need further medical attention.

Dry eye

According to the National Eye Institute (NEI), dry eye affects millions of people in the United States every year. The symptoms include:

  • an itchy, scratchy, or burning feeling in the eye
  • red eyes
  • sensitivity to light
  • blurred vision

Dry eye develops when the tear glands do not produce enough moisture. Doctors often advise people with dry eye to use OTC eye drops, also known as artificial tears.

However, a 2013 study showed that using a cold compress may be as effective as artificial tears. As well as being less expensive, it is also a natural treatment option.

Learn more about dry eyes.

Pinkeye

Allergies or infections in the eye can often cause an eye condition called pinkeye, or conjunctivitis. It usually improves on its own, but until then, it can make the eyes feel:

  • dry
  • gritty
  • itchy
  • watery

Using a cold compress may ease the swelling and redness associated with pinkeye. People using a cold compress should ensure that it is clean before use and wash it after every use.

If the eyes feel very painful, produce more pus than usual, and are more sensitive to light, people should contact a doctor.

Learn more about pinkeye.

Eye pain

Many things can cause eye pain, including:

  • a foreign object in the eye
  • allergy or infection
  • contact lens irritation
  • an injury
  • cysts or lumps around the eyelid, such as a stye or a chalazion

Placing a cold compress over the affected eye or eyes for 15 minutes can reduce swelling and relieve pain.

If the pain is a result of something in the eye, it is important not to rub or press it. Instead, a person can gently flush the eye with water. If a person’s eye pain results from exposure to chemicals, they should wash the eye with water and seek immediate medical attention.

Learn more about different causes of eye pain.

Dark circles and eye bags

Some people are more likely than others to have dark circles. These individuals include older adults, people of a non-white background, and those with a genetic predisposition to dark circles.

Dark circles can also occur due to:

  • dermatitis
  • aging
  • smoking
  • rubbing the eyes
  • hayfever
  • fatigue
  • dehydration

Using a cold compress can shrink the blood vessels under the eyes, reducing the appearance of darkness and swelling.

Learn more about dark circles under the eyes.

It is easy to make a cold compress using household items. There are several options people can try, depending on the materials they can access.

Cold towel

A person can make a cold towel compress by following these steps:

  • running a clean dishcloth under water and wringing it out so that it is damp
  • folding it into a square
  • placing the folded cloth in a plastic bag and putting it in the freezer for 15 minutes
  • removing the frozen cloth from the bag and gently applying it to the eyes

Ice pack

Making an ice pack compress involves these steps:

  • placing ice into a resealable plastic bag
  • breaking the ice gently into small pieces if it is in large chunks
  • wrapping the sealed ice bag with a clean dishcloth and applying it to the eyes as necessary

Frozen food pack

People can make a frozen food pack compress by:

  • using small frozen vegetables such as peas, corn, or mixed vegetables
  • pouring a small amount into a resealable plastic bag
  • covering it with a clean dishcloth and applying it to the eyes

A person should gently place the compress on a closed eye. The NEI recommends keeping a cold compress on an eye injury for 15 minutes. It is fine to repeat the treatment as necessary every couple of hours.

It is essential never to apply ice directly to the skin. People should also take care not to use a frozen cold compress for too long. The Rand Eye Institute recommends using an iced compress for no longer than 20 minutes to avoid frostbite.

Warm compresses may also relieve pain, strain, or irritation.

People can use warm compresses to treat meibomian gland dysfunction (MGD), a condition in which the glands in the eyes do not secrete enough oil. This lack of oil can cause dry, sore eyes. A 2015 study showed that using a bundled warm, moist towel increased the temperature of the inner eyelid enough to have therapeutic value.

Anyone who thinks that they may have MGD should contact their eye doctor.

A person should always test a cold or warm compress on another part of the body before applying it to the eye area.

It is important to avoid using chemical cooling packs on the eyes. If the chemicals were to leak, they could cause eye pain and damage. People should also refrain from applying raw meat to the eyes.

People with dry eyes can try other treatments, including:

  • OTC eye drops, or artificial tears
  • prescription eye drops such as cyclosporine (Restasis) or lifitegrast (Xiidra)
  • tear duct plugs, which a doctor may recommend

The NEI says that the following can prevent symptoms from flaring up:

  • avoiding smoke, wind, or harsh air conditioning
  • using a humidifier at home
  • drinking adequate water
  • limiting screen time on digital devices
  • taking regular breaks from intense, focused activities
  • wearing wraparound sunglasses outside
  • getting enough sleep

Cold compresses can be a safe and effective way to relieve the symptoms of dry eye, pinkeye, eye pain, and dark circles and eye bags. People can easily make a cold compress at home using a dishcloth, ice, or frozen vegetables.

However, people should avoid chemical ice packs, as these could lead to injury if the chemicals enter the eye. Anyone in this situation should contact an eye doctor right away.