Itchy Eyes: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

The warmth and beauty of spring can lead to itchy eyes. So can infection and other conditions. The good news is they usually aren’t a sign of something serious. Here’s what you need to know.

Causes

Allergies. This is the most common cause. Your eyes may react to something in the air outside, in your home, or at your office. These allergens can include:

  • Outdoor substances: Pollen from trees, grasses, weeds, and shrubs
  • Indoor substances: Dust mites, fungus, mold, and tiny bits of pet skin (pet dander)
  • Man-made substances: Tobacco smoke, perfume, chemicals, and exhaust fumes

Infection: The most common one is pinkeye, or conjunctivitis. That just means inflammation of the conjunctiva, or the inner lining of the eye. Anyone can get it, but it happens most often in children. Your eyes may be red and swollen. Pus might make your eyelids stick together while you’re asleep. Bacteria usually cause pinkeye that has a discharge. In rare cases, a virus can do it, too. Allergies can sometimes inflame the conjunctiva. That’s more likely to cause mucus, not pus.

Blepharitis. That’s inflammation of the eyelids. It happens when tiny oil glands at the base of your eyelashes get clogged. Your eyes might be red and irritated. It can be hard to get rid of, but it’s not contagious and typically doesn’t affect your eyesight. Allergies, or skin conditions like acne or dermatitis, can make it worse.

Dry eye. Mucus, oils, water, and proteins help make up your tears. When you don’t have the right amount, you might get dry eye. This can irritate your eyes.

Foreign substance. A bit of grit or sand caught under the eyelid is enough. If antibiotic eyedrops don’t help a suspected infection, then it could be a bit of dirt in your eye.

Contact lenses. Sometimes your eyes can’t tell your contacts are supposed to be there. So they treat them like a foreign substance. It might be because they don’t fit the right way. You’ll probably notice this right after you put them in. Contact lenses can also trap grit or germs that lead to infection. Regularly cleaning and changing your contact lenses can help.

Corneal ulcers. Your doctor might call this keratitis. Very dry eyes, an injury, or an infection could lead to small sores, or ulcers, on the cornea. That’s the clear lens that covers the front of your eye. They can irritate your eye and cause pus and crustiness.

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Symptoms

Symptoms of itchy eyes include:

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask questions about your medical history and symptoms. They’ll also look at your eyes closely. In some cases, they might take a small sample of fluid, pus, or other material from the eye to test for bacteria.

Treatment

A clean, cool washcloth might soothe itchy eyes for a while. Use a clean, warm washcloth to soften and gently wipe away pus or eye boogers. Be sure to wash your hands after so you don’t spread an infection if you have one.

That might be all you need for mild itching. Even some infections, like certain types of pinkeye, often clear up on their own without medication. If you have allergies, try to avoid the trigger substance. Take allergy medication like pills or eyedrops.

If your itching is more serious, options might include:

  • Saline solution to flush grit or dirt from your eye
  • Antibiotic drops to kill the bacteria causing an infection
  • Steroid drops to lessen inflammation and ulcers
  • Surgery to remove a foreign object or fix an injury

Prevention

Here are a few ways to ward off itchy eyes:

Wash your hands. They often carry dirt and germs that can infect your eyes. Keep them clean with simple soap and warm water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Try not to touch your eyes. It can be tempting to rub your eyes when they’re itchy, especially during allergy season. That could irritate them more and could even scratch the surface of your eye. Take allergy medication if it helps with the itch.

Wash off your makeup. Do it each night before you go to bed so it won’t block pores and hair follicles. It’s also a good idea to get rid of makeup after about 6 months to avoid spreading bacteria. Don’t share your makeup with other people.

Be careful with contact lenses. Talk to your eye doctor about the best way to disinfect and clean them. Wash your hands thoroughly before you handle them. Tell the doctor right away if your lenses seem to make your eyes itch.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Whitney Seltman on July 21, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Ophthalmology: “The Itchy Eye: Diagnosis, Management of Ocular Pruritis,” “What Is Bacterial Keratitis?”

American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: “Eye Allergy.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Styes: How You Can Avoid Them and Best Treatment Tips,” “Itchy, Red Eyes? How to Tell If It’s Allergy or Infection.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Keratitis (Corneal Ulcers).”

Mayo Clinic: “Sty,” “Blepharitis.”

Seattle Children’s Hospital: “Eye -- Pus or Discharge.”

The Nemours Foundation: “Pinkeye (Conjunctivitis).”

The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center: “Picking your eye boogers could lead to infection,” “Itchy eyes: causes and why to avoid eye rubbing for relief.”

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