What Your Eyes Say About Your Health

Medically Reviewed by Alan Kozarsky, MD on November 17, 2015
4 min read

Do you ever look in the mirror and see that your eyes are red? Or droopy? Or extra crusty?

Sometimes a cold compress and a trip to the drugstore are all you need. Other times, it's a good idea to see your doctor.

How can you tell the difference? A sneak peek at some common conditions will help you know if it’s something minor or worth a second look.

“I think the most common eye problem people experience is a red eye,” says Rebecca J. Taylor, MD, an ophthalmologist in Nashville. “A red eye with a blotch of blood on the white part of the eye may look really scary, but it’s usually just a bruise under the surface of the eye. We call it a subconjunctival hemorrhage." It should clear up in a few weeks, she says.

If both eyes are red, itchy, and watery, that could just be allergies, Taylor says. These symptoms, are usually caused by environmental (seasonal) allergies, but they could mean you’re allergic to a product you used. Over-the-counter tears will help with moisture, and antihistamine eye drops should stop the itch. Call your doctor if you aren’t better in 10 days.

Your doctor may call this acute conjunctivitis. It's itchy and red, and it oozes a white or yellow discharge. “Typically it is viral and lasts a week to 10 days. It can start in one eye and go to the other eye. A runny nose and cold symptoms are also very common,” Taylor says.

If you think you have it, call your doctor to be sure. It can be very contagious, so wash your hands a lot and don’t share towels or washcloths. Some conditions, like dry eye disease or an eye infection, look a lot like pinkeye. Your doctor will know the difference and how to treat it.

Blame this common problem on your environment, hormonal changes, or your daily routine. “People who stare at the computer, cell phones, books, or the TV for long periods of time may be very uncomfortable toward the end of day, because they are not blinking enough,” Taylor says.

Moisten your eyes with artificial tears from your local drugstore a couple of times a day. See your doctor if that doesn’t work. Some conditions, like certain forms of arthritis, are linked to dry eyes. Other medicines you take could cause it, too.

Your eyes make oil naturally. If the oil glands get clogged, they can cause an infection in your eyelash follicles. The result? A painful, red, crusty bump on your eyelid called a stye.

To ease the pain, place a warm, moist compress on the most tender part of the bump five or six times a day. You can also wash your eyelashes once a day with a few drops of baby shampoo and hot water. Call your doctor if this doesn’t help. You may need an antibiotic, steroid ointment, or even surgery to drain the lesion.

An eyelid twitch is common and annoying but not usually serious. It’s called eyelid myokymia. Most often, there's no definite cause and it goes away by itself. It may be linked to caffeine intake, stress, or too little sleep. The solution: Make simple lifestyle changes in those areas.

See your eye doctor if you have twitches for more than a week, or if other parts of your face start to twitch. It’s rare, but it could be something more serious.

When you stare at screens all day, your eyes can get tired. Take a break with the 20/20/20 rule. Look at an object at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes, says Ivan Schwab, MD, a spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Another cause of eye strain? They could just be dry. Try some artificial tears, Schwab says. Still no relief? You may need glasses, especially if you’re over 40.

As you age, the thin tissues of your eyelids can look like they're hooded. This is a normal, as long as it happens in both eyes.

Call your doctor ASAP if one or both of your eyelids droop toward or over your pupil. You could have a more serious condition.

Are menus a challenge to make out? If you’re over 40, it’s probably normal. At that age, everyone's eyes start to change because of something called presbyopia.

“It's what happens when the lens of the eye hardens and can't easily shift from focusing far away to nearby anymore,” Schwab says. That means it’s harder to read close up, especially if the light is dim. Reading glasses, bifocals, and progressive lenses often help.

The bottom line: Call your eye doctor if something doesn’t seem right with your eyes. If you’re 40 or older, he’ll probably suggest an exam to check for diseases that may not have obvious symptoms. Some of these, like glaucoma or retinal disease, can lead to blindness.

“Getting a comprehensive eye exam is especially important if you have a family history or an underlying condition that could increase your risk of an eye disease,” Schwab says.