There are many reasons why the whites of the eyes turn red. If this happens without pain, it is often not serious. It can often be prevented or eased with home care.
Other terms for red eye, include “pink eye” and “bloodshot eyes.” Irritation, blood in the eye, or inflamed blood vessels can cause the eye to appear red.
Often, the cause is not serious, and home remedies can resolve the problem. Sometimes there is a more serious underlying condition.
An eye with a sharp, aching, or throbbing pain, or a pain that gets worse in response to light, needs urgent medical help.
Other reasons to see a doctor are if eyesight changes or there are other symptoms. Symptoms to look out for include headache, sensitivity to light, feeling sick, or vomiting.
Depending on the cause, red eye can often be treated at home.
Here are some tips.
- Regularly place a cool compress over the eyes, made by soaking clean cotton wool or cloth in warm or cold water and then squeezing it out.
- Avoid eye makeup, or choose hypoallergenic eye make up. A range of hypoallergenic products is available for purchase online.
- Use artificial tears, which are available for purchase online or over-the-counter or from pharmacies.
- Apply antihistamine drops if red eyes are due, for example to a seasonal allergy. These are also available for purchase online.
If you are planning to use eye drops, speak to a health care provider first, as some drops may increase redness.
To prevent red eyes from starting or worsening:
- Avoid smoke, pollen, dust, and other triggers.
- Do not wear contact lenses until the red eye clears.
- Always clean lenses properly and do not reuse disposable lenses.
- Wash your hands regularly and avoid touching the eyes, to prevent infection.
- Wash clothes, pillowcases, and towels regularly.
- Bathe or shower before bed or after coming in from outside if you have a seasonal allergy.
- Wear sunglasses to protect the eyes from pollen or dust when outside.
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What is red eye?
Red eye usually means that the whites of the eyes appear bloodshot. This happens because of changes to the blood vessels that supply the membrane covering the front of the eye.
The conjunctiva is the membrane that covers the front of the eye and lines the eyelids. The blood vessels of this membrane can dilate, causing the eyes to appear reddened. This is usually caused by:
- infection, for example with bacteria
- allergic reaction
Rarer problems can also cause the eye to become red, such as an increase in pressure inside the eye.
In most cases, the cause is conjunctivitis.
Conjunctivitis means inflammation of the surface of the eye, and it has several different causes.
Bacterial or viral conjunctivitis: There is often a discharge. This discharge will often be stickier in cases involving bacteria. It can be relieved by wiping closed eyelids with water or a compress. Never use the same compress on both eyes.
If the symptoms are still there after a week, you should see a doctor. If the cause is bacterial, you may need antibiotic eye drops.
Cold or flu: These can be linked to infectious conjunctivitis. This type of red eye usually spreads quickly to affect both eyes.
Allergy: Seasonal allergies can affect the eyes, for example, an allergy to pollen or animals.
Irritation: This can be either:
- physical irritation, perhaps caused by an object in the eye
- chemical, for example, after swimming in a chlorinated pool
Most cases of conjunctivitis clear up without any medical help.
A doctor may prescribe antibacterial eye drops, but these will not help if the cause is viral.
Allergies can improve with drugs. Some antihistamine tablets and eye drops for allergies do not need a doctor’s prescription.
Broken blood vessels
This happens when tiny blood vessels break beneath the surface of your eye. The blood is trapped and makes the white of your eye turn bright red. It can be caused by a strong sneeze, heavy lifting, hard vomiting, or rubbing your eye a little too hard. You may be more likely to have broken blood vessels if you take blood-thinning medication, even a baby aspirin. Broken blood vessels can look scary but are generally harmless. There’s usually no pain.
How to Treat Red Eyes
Red eyes are usually nothing to worry about, as long as they don’t happen often and don’t last long. You might find brief relief in over-the-counter artificial tears that wash and moisten your eyes.
Decongestants and antihistamines can help with itchiness and redness because of allergies. If you have a bacterial infection, you might need to take antibiotics.
Call your doctor if you have red eyes along with:
- A sudden change in vision
- Sensitivity to light
- Sudden halos around lights
- A severe headache, eye pain, or fever
- Nausea or vomiting
- Something in your eye
- Not being able to keep the eye open
Also known as conjunctivitis, pinkeye is when the lining of your eyelid and the white of your eye become inflamed. It might happen because of a virus or bacteria. It’s very common, especially among children, and is usually very contagious. If you think you have pinkeye, see your doctor, wash your hands often, and don’t rub your eyes.
Other symptoms include:
- More tears than usual
- Eyes that burn, itch, or feel gritty
- A white, yellow, or green discharge from your eyes
- Sensitivity to light
- A crust on your eyelid or eyelashes
- The clues: Not only are those peepers red, but it feels like there’s sand in them. The sensation can feel worse at night.
- Should you see a doctor? If it’s not getting better with OTC lubricating drops, see an ophthalmologist.
- Treatments: OTC eye drops or artificial tears, prescription eye drops and punctal plugs. Dr. Hwang explains punctal plugs: “Everyone has a tear drainage system on the inside corner of the eyes. Just like you plug up a sink to keep the water in, sometimes we put a ‘plug’ in the eye to help your natural tears stay around longer.”
- A note on potential dry eye causes: Anything that fatigues your eyes — such as too much screen time or not enough sleep — can make them overly dry.