Eye pain is a symptom of many different conditions. Some of these conditions are relatively benign and may clear up following appropriate home treatment. Others are much more serious and may require emergency medical treatment.
This article outlines the causes of eye pain and their associated treatment options. We also provide information on diagnosing and preventing eye pain and offer advice on when to seek medical treatment from a doctor or emergency care unit.
Below, we list some possible causes of eye pain.
Healthy eyes produce tears that help lubricate the eye. Tears also help wash away dust and other irritants. Eyes that do not produce enough tears may become dry and itchy and vulnerable to infection.
Some possible symptoms of dry eyes include:
- redness and soreness
- a sensation of grit in the eye
- watery eyes
- blurred vision
- sensitivity to light
Dry eyes are not usually a cause for concern, and a person can typically manage symptoms using artificial tears.
However, some medical conditions and medications may cause chronically dry eyes, so it is important to discuss dry eye symptoms with a doctor.
An eye allergy, or ocular allergy, is an allergic reaction to something that comes into contact with the eyes. Such allergies usually affect both eyes.
Some potential allergens that can trigger an eye allergy include:
Typical symptoms of an eye allergy include:
- redness and swelling of the eyelids
- grittiness or itchiness of the eyes
- watery eyes
- sensitivity to light
The treatment for an eye allergy involves identifying and then avoiding the allergen that triggers the allergy.
People may also find relief using over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines and eye drops. If a person experiences severe or persistent symptoms, their doctor may prescribe corticosteroid eye drops or immunotherapy to suppress the allergic reaction.
Conjunctivitis is the medical term for a group of conditions that cause swelling, redness, and inflammation of the conjunctiva. The conjunctiva is a thin transparent tissue that covers the white part of the eye.
Conjunctivitis typically causes the whites of the eyes to become red or pink. Hence, many people refer to conjunctivitis as pink eye.
Viruses, bacteria, and allergens cause
- air pollution
- ameba and parasites
- a foreign object in the eye
- contact lenses
Other possible symptoms of conjunctivitis include:
- itching, irritation, or burning
- feeling as if there is a foreign body in the eyes
- feeling the urge to rub the eyes
- swollen eyelids
- increased tear production
- discharge from the eyes
- crusting of eyelids or eyelashes, particularly in the morning
- feeling discomfort when wearing contact lenses or feeling that they do not stay in place
The treatment for conjunctivitis depends on the cause:
- Viral conjunctivitis (VC): Most cases of VC are mild and clear up within
7–14 dayswithout the need for medical treatment. A doctor may prescribe antiviral medications for severe viral infections.
- Bacterial conjunctivitis (BC): Mild BC often improves in
2–5 dayswithout treatment. However, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics for more severe bacterial infections.
- Allergic conjunctivitis (AC): The treatment for AC involves identifying and avoiding the allergen that triggers the condition. Other treatment options include topical antihistamines and eye drops.
The symptoms of blepharitis include:
- red, swollen, itchy eyelids
- scaly or flaky skin on the eyelids
- crusting of the eyelids
- a gritty or burning sensation in the eyes
- excessive tear production
- dry eyes
Severe symptoms may include:
- blurred vision
- losing eyelashes
- inflammation of the cornea
The treatment for blepharitis involves keeping the eyelids clean and free of crusts. This typically involves applying warm compresses to the eyes and gently cleansing the eyelids using a baby shampoo or an OTC eye cleansing product.
Some people need to use eye drops or eyelid washes. If the blepharitis is due to a bacterial infection, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics to help clear up the infection.
A stye or chalazion
Styes and chalazia are among the most common eye problems.
A stye is a small bump that forms on the outer edge of the eyelid. It develops when an oil gland in the eye becomes blocked and clogged, causing a small, localized infection. A stye may be very painful or sensitive to the touch.
A chalazion is similar in appearance to a stye, but it is usually larger. Like styes, chalazia develop as a result of a blocked oil gland in the eye. Unlike styes, chalazia are usually not due to an infection and do not typically cause pain unless they grow very large.
Styes often clear on their own. Applying warm compresses to the affected eye can help drain the stye and speed up the healing. Very large or painful styes may require antibiotic treatment.
Warm compresses can also help clear a chalazion. However, a doctor may need to surgically remove a persistent chalazion or one that grows very large.
A physical injury to the eye may cause pain, swelling, or excessive tear production. Examples of such injuries include:
- being poked in the eye
- receiving a blow to the eye
- having a foreign object stuck in the eye
The treatment for an eye injury depends on various factors, including:
- type of injury
- severity or extent of damage to the eye
- whether there is damage to surrounding tissues
- whether an infection is present
If a person has received a poke in the eye or a blow to the eye, their doctor may recommend the following:
- keeping the eye clean
- applying a cool compress to reduce swelling
- taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as ibuprofen, to reduce inflammation and pain
If a person has an eyelash or other foreign object stuck in their eye, they can try to remove it using a damp cotton pad or swab. If this is not possible, they should seek help from a doctor.
A doctor will remove the object and may prescribe anesthetic eye drops to alleviate any pain, and antibiotics to prevent infection.
Glaucoma is a progressive disease that damages the optic nerve of the eye. This causes increasing pressure in the eye, which can severely damage vision.
Possible symptoms of glaucoma include:
According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, eye damage that results from glaucoma is permanent and irreversible. However, medications and surgery can help prevent the condition from worsening.
In most cases, an eye specialist, such as an ophthalmologist or optometrist, will prescribe eye drops to lower pressure in the eye.
In some cases, the ophthalmologist may recommend laser surgery or another type of eye surgery to help improve fluid drainage from the eye.
A cluster headache causes sudden and excruciating pain on one side of the head. Many people also experience the pain around their eyes.
Cluster headache pain is typically sharp, burning, or piercing and may last between 15 minutes and 3 hours at a time.
Other possible symptoms of a cluster headache include:
- a red and watering eye
- drooping of the eyelid
- a smaller pupil in one eye
- a blocked or runny nostril
- facial flushing or sweating
A person who experiences cluster headaches will need to contact their doctor for a diagnosis and appropriate treatment.
A doctor will prescribe pain treatments that a person can take as soon as they feel a headache coming on. These may include:
- sumatriptan injections
- sumatriptan or zolmitriptan nasal spray
- oxygen therapy
An aneurysm is an enlargement in a blood vessel. It occurs as a result of a weakness within the blood vessel wall.
An aneurysm can occur anywhere in the body, including the brain. If a brain aneurysm ruptures, a person may experience pain above or behind one eye.
A ruptured brain aneurysm is a medical emergency and needs immediate treatment. People must call 911 if someone is experiencing the symptoms listed below.
Some other signs and symptoms of a ruptured brain aneurysm include:
- a sudden and very severe headache
- a dilated pupil
- a drooping eyelid
- numbness, especially on one side of the body
- vomiting and nausea
- changes in personality or awareness
- loss of consciousness
The treatment for a brain aneurysm depends on several factors, including:
- the person’s age and overall health
- the size, shape, and location of the aneurysm
- whether the aneurysm is ruptured or unruptured
- the risk of the aneurysm rupturing
In some cases, a doctor may simply recommend monitoring the aneurysm for signs of growth. In other cases, they may recommend surgery to prevent the aneurysm from rupturing or to prevent further blood leakage.
Rarely, eye pain may be a sign of eye cancer. Some types of eye cancer are actually skin cancers that start in the eyelid or surrounding skin. Others begin in the eye itself.
Eye cancer usually only causes pain if the tumor has grown extensively outside the eye. Some earlier signs and symptoms of eye cancer can include:
- blurred vision
- a growing dark spot on the iris of the eye
- a change in pupil size or shape
- a change in the position of the eyeball within its socket
- a change in the way the eyeball moves within its socket
- bulging of the eye
- partial or complete loss of vision
The treatment for eye cancer will depend partly on the size and location of the cancer, as well as on the likelihood of saving vision in the eye.
Some possible treatment options for eye cancer include:
When diagnosing the cause of eye pain, a doctor will likely:
- ask about a person’s medical history, including recent eye injuries and infections
- ask about a person’s symptoms
- examine the eye
- take a culture of the eye to check for a bacterial infection
In some cases, a doctor may refer the person for additional tests, such as:
A person should seek emergency medical treatment if they:
- feel a pop behind the eye, followed by an intense headache
- have a sudden, unexplained, and very intense headache that causes eye pain
- are suddenly unable to see
- have other serious symptoms, such as confusion, slurred speech, or loss of consciousness
- experience a serious eye injury that punctures or severely scratches the eye
A person should contact a doctor if they experience any of the following symptoms:
- eye pain that does not improve within a few days of home treatment
- eye pain that initially improves with treatment but then comes back or worsens
- eye pain accompanied by intense headaches or other symptoms
- symptoms of a serious condition, such as glaucoma or cancer
- eye pain that interferes with daily functioning
The outlook for eye pain depends on the underlying cause:
- Infections: With appropriate treatment, most eye infections clear up within a couple of weeks. Some infections do not require any treatment at all.
- Neurological causes: Treatment for cluster headaches should help reduce the severity and duration of eye pain during headache episodes. Surgical treatment for an aneurysm will prevent the risk of rupture and associated eye pain.
- Cancer: Survival rates for various types of eye cancer are high, especially if a doctor diagnoses the condition and begins treatment early.
No matter the cause of eye pain, the prognosis is much better with early treatment.
It is not always possible to prevent eye pain. However, the following strategies can help reduce the risk of conditions that cause eye pain:
- keeping the eye area clean
- washing the hands regularly, especially before touching the face
- avoiding picking at the eyes or popping styes
- monitoring for signs of sensitivity or allergy when using new skin care products or cosmetics
- wearing eye protection when working with eye irritants, such as chemicals, aerosols, or materials that produce fine dust
Eye pain may occur for a number of reasons. Some of the less severe causes include dry eye, infections, and allergies. Some of the more serious causes include glaucoma, aneurysms, and cancer.
A person should consult a doctor if they experience severe or persistent eye pain, especially if the pain co-occurs with other worrying symptoms. A doctor will work to determine the cause of the pain and provide appropriate treatments.
In general, the sooner a person seeks treatment for eye pain, the better their outlook.