The term eye irritation refers to feelings of dryness, itchiness, pain, or grittiness in the eye. Many factors can cause eye irritation, including injuries, dry eye, and pinkeye.

How an irritated eye looks or feels depends on the cause of the irritation, but the main symptoms include dryness, itching, and pain. Sometimes, it might feel as though there is something in the eye. The eye might be red or swollen.

Keep reading to learn about some of the leading causes of eye irritation, how to treat them, and when to see a doctor.

A black-and-white photo in which a doctor administers eye drops to a patient with eye-irritation.Share on Pinterest
Treatment plans for eye irritation vary depending on the cause and severity of the irritation.

Usually, the act of blinking spreads tears across the cornea, which is the front of the eye. As well as keeping the eye wet, this also washes away any particles that could lead to an infection.

When someone has dry eye disease, their tears do not keep their eyes nourished or lubricated. They either do not make enough tears, or their tears do not have the right balance of oil, water, and mucus to clean the eye. Doctors also call the condition dysfunctional tear syndrome.

The symptoms include:

  • itchy eyes
  • a gritty feeling in the eyes
  • burning pain
  • sensitivity to light
  • blurry vision
  • the sensation of something being in the eye
  • watery eyes

Read more about dry eye here.

Treatment and remedies

People can use artificial tear solutions whenever they feel that they need to make their eyes wet. These products are available from drugstores. People could also try using a warm compress or giving themselves an eyelid massage.

For some people, dry eye disease might never go away. These individuals will be able to manage it with medication.

Doctors may recommend blocking the tear ducts to stop tears draining away before they have done their job. Prescription-strength eye drops are another option.

Read more about treating dry eye with eye drops and remedies here.

When to see a doctor

Dry eye disease can get worse if people do not treat it. Over time, it can damage the eye and even impair vision. Anyone who thinks that they might have the condition should speak to a doctor to discuss treatment options and prevent damage to their vision.

Eye injuries are a common cause of eye irritation. Impact to the eye from a person or an object, splashing a chemical into the eye, or getting grit or sand in the eye, for example, can all result in injury.

Symptoms might include:

  • pain
  • vision problems
  • cuts or tears on the eyelid
  • problems moving the eye
  • blood in the clear part of the eye
  • difficulty blinking
  • the eye being swollen shut
  • changes in the size of the pupil
  • changes in how the pupil looks

Treatment and remedies

The American Academy of Ophthalmology offer the following advice:

  • If someone gets sand or grit in their eye, they can try blinking until it comes out. If that does not work, washing the eye with saline solution or running tap water could flush the particles out.
  • If someone gets hit in the eye, they can use a small cold compress to ease the pain and swelling. They should not use steak or other food items, as they might transfer bacteria into the eye.
  • If someone’s eye is cut or punctured, they should tape a protective shield, such as the bottom of a paper cup, over it, then seek emergency medical attention.
  • If someone splashes a chemical into their eye, they should wash it with plenty of clean water and then seek emergency medical attention.

When to see a doctor

Eye injuries can be very dangerous, so it is always best to seek medical attention even if the symptoms do not seem serious. Emergency medical attention will be necessary for severe eye injuries, such as:

  • a cut or punctured eye
  • chemicals in the eye
  • those that cause visual disturbances

Pinkeye, or conjunctivitis, happens when something irritates the lining of the front of the eye.

The symptoms of pinkeye tend to include:

  • red eyes
  • itchy eyes
  • swollen eyelids
  • teary eyes
  • a thick, mucus discharge that dries to form a crust

There are three main types of conjunctivitis:

  • bacterial conjunctivitis
  • viral conjunctivitis
  • allergic conjunctivitis

Read more about pinkeye here.

Treatment and remedies

For cases of pinkeye, the treatment will vary depending on the cause.

Viral conjunctivitis

Viral conjunctivitis is very contagious, but it will usually go away on its own. Placing a cool, wet cloth over closed eyes can help ease the symptoms. Over-the-counter (OTC) eye drops can help those with severe symptoms.

Bacterial conjunctivitis

Bacterial conjunctivitis is not usually contagious, but people will sometimes need to take topical antibiotics to stop the infection.

Allergic conjunctivitis

Irritants such as pollen, animal hair, mold, or dust mite feces can cause allergic conjunctivitis if they get into the eye. Allergic conjunctivitis is uncomfortable, but it is not dangerous. People can treat it with medicated eye drops from drugstores, many of which are available OTC.

Read more about some remedies for pinkeye here.

When to see a doctor

Conjunctivitis will usually go away on its own or with medicated eye drops from a drugstore. Anyone who finds that it does not get better within 1–2 weeks should speak to a doctor.

Eye irritation might refer to feelings of pain, dryness, itchiness, or grittiness in the eye.

Dry eye disease, eye injuries, and pinkeye are some of the most common causes of eye irritation.

How eye irritation looks and feels will depend on the cause, as will the treatment options.