Your eyes can become red and itchy at a moment’s notice, interrupting a crucial moment like the home-stretch in a long drive or an important presentation.
If this only happens sporadically, according to Dr. Kristen North, it’s probably nothing for you to worry about. She’s a policy and research consultant for the Canadian Association of Optometrists.
“If the symptoms are fleeting, then I would consider it a normal reaction to daily life,” she said. “If it lasts longer or is recurrent, then (it could be) more severe.”
Allergies are the most common cause of eyes that are both red and itchy, but the reaction can also be caused by irritants in your environment.
“Think smoke or getting an eyelash in your eye,” said North.
However, there are instances when red, itchy eyes can indicate something more problematic — perhaps even a problem that requires medical attention.
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“Itchiness or redness that lasts longer than one to two days should be looked at by an optometrist,” said Dr. Lisa Christian, associate clinical professor of optometry and vision science at the University of Waterloo.
Especially if the redness and itchiness occur “in the absence of any known irritants,” she said.
Common side effects
If your eyes are red and itchy for a prolonged period, you may also experience tearing or mucous.
“Tearing associated with red and itchy eyes can indicate a viral infection,” said Christian.
“Mucous associated with redness can point to a bacterial infection.”
North agrees — in her practice, discharge is a common side effect of red, itchy eyes.
“Whether watery or thicker … this could indicate an infection and requires a trip to the optometrist,” she said.
“Pain is [also] generally an indicator of a more serious condition, although some serious conditions can be present without pain.”
When to see a doctor
While red, itchy eyes alone may not warrant a trip to the doctor, there are some additional side effects that do.
If the redness and itchiness persist for longer than two days, Christian recommends that you see a doctor.
This is especially true if symptoms worsen over that time period, said North.
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Other reasons to see an optometrist, according to North, include:
- If you have pain in the eyes
- If you have light sensitivity
- If you have blurred vision
- If you wear contact lenses
- If you have a weakened immune system
If your eyes are red and itchy, there are some home remedies you can try to alleviate the pain.
“Artificial tears and a cold compress (or a cold washcloth over the eyes for five to 10 minutes) may help relieve symptoms,” said Christian.
If the symptoms are caused by allergies, try to avoid the allergens that irritate your eyes. For example, said North, go indoors if you suffer from a pollen allergy.
“A cold cloth applied to closed eyes can also calm an allergic reaction and bring temporary relief,” North said.
If redness and itchiness persist, artificial tears or topical eye drops may be prescribed by your optometrist.
“Topical eye drops can be prescribed to relieve symptoms or, in the case of seasonal allergies, may be prescribed to prevent symptoms from starting,” said Christian.
In her practice, North does testing to determine the root cause of red, itchy eyes.
“I will then recommend a course of treatment based on this finding,” she said.
“Most commonly, itchy eyes are related to allergies so I will recommend allergy medications and certain eye drops, including prescription eye drops, that provide relief and can help prevent ongoing reactions.”
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