Sharp eye pain can stem from many causes ranging from debris in the eye to glaucoma. Without treatment, some of these issues can lead to vision loss and other serious complications.

Intense or sharp pain often results from debris entering the eye.

This type of pain can also occur with migraine or cluster headaches. In some cases, inflammation or fluid buildup in the eye can lead to severe pain, as well as tissue damage and vision problems.

This article lists some of the causes of sharp eye pain, from the more common to the rarer, and when to speak with a doctor.

Several conditions ranging in severity can cause sharp pain in the eye or eyes. The following list contains some of the most common causes of sharp eye pain.

1. Debris in the eye

Many people experience sharp pain when debris, such as dirt or dust, becomes lodged in an eye. Typically, the pain occurs in the area where the object is located and may feel worse when blinking.

The pain usually subsides once a person flushes the debris from their eye. They can do this by splashing water or saline solution on the affected eye.

If a person continues to experience eye pain, they may have a corneal abrasion, which is a small scratch on the eye. In this case, it is best to contact an optometrist or ophthalmologist for further evaluation.

2. Contact lens issues

Contact lenses can get caught or “lost” in the eye, though they cannot travel very far. Losing a contact lens in the eye can cause pain and the sensation of something being stuck in the eye.

A person can take steps to avoid losing a contact lens in the eye by:

  • visiting an eye doctor once a year for an exam and fitting
  • avoiding sleeping in contact lenses
  • giving the eyes a rest
  • making sure online retailers provide the right contact lenses
  • following all instructions from the eye doctor
  • cleaning and storing contacts correctly
  • changing contact lenses out when it is time and not overwearing them

3. Dry eye

The eyes have three layers of tear film over them: a watery layer, an oily layer, and a mucus layer. These layers help aid in vision and keep the eyes clean.

In most cases, the eyes continually make tears to keep them moist. However, several factors, such as crying a lot, having medication side effects, wearing contact lenses, and having certain medical conditions, can cause the eyes to dry out.

When the eyes become too dry, they can cause symptoms such as:

  • stinging
  • burning
  • redness and irritation
  • strings of mucus around the eyes
  • pain putting on contacts
  • gritty feeling

Treatment often consists of artificial tears or unclogging tear ducts.

4. Migraine

Migraine is a common neurological disease that can cause headaches and episodes of other symptoms. It affects about 29.5 million people in the United States.

A migraine headache can cause severe, throbbing pain behind one or both eyes, and a person may also experience:

  • sensitivity to light and sound
  • vision changes, such as seeing flashing lights or having partial vision loss
  • dizziness
  • loss of coordination
  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • mood changes
  • confusion
  • difficulty concentrating

Symptoms of a migraine attack, including all phases of an attack, can typically last from 1 day to 1 week.

Doctors and researchers still do not fully understand what causes migraine. However, certain factors can trigger symptoms. Some common triggers include:

  • emotional triggers, including stress or anxiety
  • physical stress due to lack of sleep, poor posture, or overexertion
  • certain foods, such as chocolate, aged cheeses, and processed meats
  • beverages that contain alcohol or caffeine
  • hormonal changes, such as those that occur during menstruation or menopause
  • overuse of certain medications, such as over-the-counter pain relievers
  • changes in weather
  • light
  • dehydration
  • certain smells

5. Optic neuritis

Optic neuritis is swelling of the eye’s optic nerve. One possible cause is the immune system attacking the optic nerve, causing damage.

When optic neuritis occurs, a person may experience symptoms such as:

  • pain when moving the eye
  • pain in the back of the eye
  • faded or dull-looking colors
  • blurry vision
  • dimming vision

Some people do not need any treatment, and the condition will clear on its own. The most common treatment is the use of corticosteroids. For people living with other conditions, treating the underlying cause can help heal the eye.

6. Uveitis

Uveitis is inflammation of the eye’s middle layer — the uvea.

This inflammation can also affect the eye’s lens, retina, optic nerve, and vitreous fluid. It can occur in one or both eyes.

Uveitis can cause the following symptoms:

  • eye pain and redness
  • dark spots in a person’s vision
  • blurred vision
  • sensitivity to light

Uveitis can damage tissue in the eye, which may result in reduced vision or vision loss.

Medical professionals specializing in eye health can use chart exams and eye pressure testing to diagnose uveitis. They may also dilate the pupil to inspect the back of the eye.

Treatments for uveitis focus on reducing inflammation and pain, preventing tissue damage, and counteracting vision loss. A doctor may recommend:

  • corticosteroid injections or drops
  • oral immunosuppressive medication
  • anti-inflammatory eye drops or oral medication

There are different types of uveitis. Iritis, which is also known as “anterior uveitis,” is relatively common. Other types, such as posterior uveitis, occur less often.

7. Scleritis and episcleritis

Scleritis is severe inflammation of the sclera, which is the outermost membrane of the eye. Though scleritis is rare, people can develop it due to an infection or autoimmune disease or as a side effect of medication. In some cases, doctors cannot identify the cause.

Episcleritis is a similar and more common condition. It is an inflammation of the episclera, which is the thin layer between the sclera and the tissue on the surface of the eyeball.

A person with scleritis may experience mild to severe eye pain that worsens at night or with eye movement. Other symptoms include:

  • sensitivity to light
  • watery eyes
  • blurred vision
  • tenderness
  • redness in the whites of the eyes
  • reduced vision

The symptoms of episcleritis may be milder. A person may still experience redness but less severe pain and discomfort. Their vision usually remains unchanged.

Doctors may perform multiple tests to diagnose these conditions, especially if there are recurrences, and look for underlying causes. These include:

The right treatment will depend on the underlying cause as well as the type and severity of symptoms.
In general, treatments for scleritis include:

  • artificial tear drops (for episcleritis only)
  • corticosteroid eye drops, oral tablets, or injections
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen
  • immunosuppressive medications
  • biologics, including infliximab and rituximab

8. Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches can cause severe pain. People often describe the pain as searing, burning, or stabbing, and it tends to occur above the eye or near the temple.

In this context, a “cluster” refers to a group of headaches. They usually occur during the day, and one cluster can commonly last from 15 minutes to 3 hours.

Cluster headaches may occur frequently for several days or weeks, with pain-free periods between them.

Other symptoms of cluster headaches include:

  • intense pain on one side of the head
  • red or watery eyes
  • a runny or stuffy nose
  • pupil constriction
  • drooping eyelids
  • sweating
  • restlessness or agitation

9. Angle-closure glaucoma

Glaucoma is a group of diseases that damage the optic nerve. Without treatment, glaucoma can cause vision loss and blindness. There are three types of glaucoma: open-angle, normal-tension, and angle-closure glaucoma.

In the U.S., open-angle glaucoma is the most common form, and most people who have it do not experience symptoms right away.

Angle-closure glaucoma occurs when fluid quickly builds up in the front of the eye, causing a sudden increase in pressure and intense eye pain. Another name for this disease is narrow-angle glaucoma.

Other symptoms include:

  • a sudden, severe headache
  • nausea
  • blurred vision
  • seeing halos around bright lights

The symptoms of angle-closure glaucoma develop rapidly.

This condition is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment. A doctor can drain the excess fluid and prescribe medication that reduces the pressure in the eye.

10. Tolosa-Hunt syndrome

Tolosa-Hunt syndrome is a rare medical condition that causes sudden, severe eye pain. It usually affects one eye and makes moving the eye particularly painful. Some people also experience temporary paralysis in the eye.

Other symptoms include:

The symptoms of Tolosa-Hunt syndrome often clear up without medical intervention and recur sporadically.

The exact cause of the syndrome remains unknown. However, some researchers believe it arises from the inflammation of certain areas behind the eye due to an abnormal autoimmune response.

Severe or persistent eye pain can indicate an underlying medical condition, such as uveitis, scleritis, or angle-closure glaucoma.

A person should contact an ophthalmologist or their regular doctor if they have:

  • severe eye pain
  • eye pain that does not go away after a few hours
  • visual disturbances, such as blurred vision or dark spots
  • visible swelling of the eye or nearby tissues
  • nausea or vomiting

The following answers can help clear up common questions about eye pain.

What causes sharp pain in the outer corner of the eye?

When pain occurs around the corner of the eye, chances are the underlying cause affects something surrounding the eye. Styes, infected tear ducts, and blepharitis can all cause pain around the corner of the eye or other areas.

What causes sudden sharp pain in one eye?

The most likely cause of sharp, sudden pain in one eye is debris getting caught in it. In some cases, it may be something that gets stuck under a contact lens, or it may be the result of something flying into the eye, such as sawdust.

Sharp pain in the eye can cause significant discomfort. Depending on the cause, the pain may resolve without treatment, or the issue may require medical intervention.

A person should contact a doctor if they experience severe eye pain or any eye pain that lasts for more than a few hours, as these symptoms can indicate a more serious underlying condition.

Many causes of sharp eye pain are treatable. A doctor will often focus on reducing inflammation and pain, preventing tissue damage, and recovering any loss of vision.