Why Are My Eyes Bloodshot?

Medically Reviewed by Whitney Seltman, OD on December 08, 2020

You may look in the mirror and be surprised to see red, bloodshot eyes staring back at you. Your eye may be slightly pink, or the entire thing can look red and bloody. It happens when blood vessels on the eye's surface swell or leak.

You may wonder what caused it to happen and if it's serious. Usually, it's not a big deal, especially if your eyes don't hurt and you can see OK.

How you treat it depends on what's causing the problem.

Could It Be Dry Eye?

Dry eye happens when your body isn't making enough tears or they're evaporating too quickly. Besides being red, your eyes may burn or feel like there's something in them. They may bother you when you're working at a computer or reading for a long time.

Dry eye is common in women over age 50 because of changes in hormones. Some medications or other health conditions can cause the problem, too. It is also most common in colder/dryer months/climates. 

It may help to use artificial tears several times a day. You can buy them at a drug store. But some people have chronic dry eyes. If you do, you may need prescription eye drops. Some people may find relief by supplementing their diet with omega-3 fatty acids. They're found naturally in foods like oily fish (salmon, sardines, anchovies) and flax seeds. Check with your eye doctor to see if you should take omega-3 supplements. Also, your doctor may suggest a warm compress for your eyes to help them make more tears.

Could It Be Allergies?

Eye allergies cause redness, itching, burning, and watery eyes. You may have other allergy symptoms too, like sneezing or a runny or stuffy nose.

Typical causes are pollen, pets, dust, or cigarette smoke. If you know what may be bugging your eyes, try to avoid it if you can.

These over-the-counter products may help:

  • Artificial tears.
  • Decongestant eye drops. They help get rid of the red, but you should only use them for a few days.
  • Antihistamines. These help with the itch but also can dry out your eyes.

Talk to your allergy or eye doctor if your eyes are still bothering you. Prescription medications and other treatments may give you more relief.

Could It Be Pinkeye?

If the whites of your eyes and eyelids are pink or red and itch like crazy, you could have pinkeye (conjunctivitis). Your eyes also may look puffy and ooze a thick liquid. It can be clear, white, yellow, or even green.

Bacteria, viruses, allergies, or even a stray eyelash can cause pinkeye. If it's bacterial, your doctor will prescribe antibiotic eye drops or ointment. See a doctor right away if you think you have it. It can spread easily, so wash your hands often. It's hard to resist, but fight the urge to rub your eyes. It will only make things worse.

Could It Be Your Contact Lens?

Red eyes and infections can happen if you don't clean your lenses correctly or if you wear them longer than you're supposed to. For instance, you may have fallen asleep in contacts that aren't meant for overnight use.

Bad fitting contacts can irritate your eyes too. If they feel uncomfortable when you put them in, quit wearing them until you can go see your eye doctor. They'll need to figure out what's causing the problem.

Could It Be A Broken Blood Vessel?

If a bright red spot suddenly appears in your eye, it could be a broken blood vessel. This can happen after something as simple as a strong sneeze or cough

It probably looks bad, but it's usually not serious. It shouldn't hurt or affect how well you see.

Think of it as a bruise in your eye that time will heal. It will take a week or two for it to go away.

Could You Have Blepharitis?

This condition causes redness and swelling of your eyelids. It often happens along with other skin conditions, like rosacea (redness of the face with swollen red bumps and small visible blood vessels) or dandruff. Sometimes, a bacterial infection is to blame.

Your eyelids may be red and itchy and look greasy and crusted.

Treatments include cleaning the eyelids, warm compresses, antibiotic or steroid eye drops, and treating the other skin problems. But even with treatment, it may come back.

Could It Be Something More Serious?

See a doctor if your eyes are bloodshot and if any of the following are true:

  • You have eye pain
  • You have light sensitivity
  • You have a discharge from your eye
  • Something punctured your eye
  • You're having problems seeing
  • You see bright circles (halos) around lights
  • You have a headache
  • You throw up or feel like you're going to

Some other more serious conditions that can cause bloodshot eyes include:

  • Corneal ulcers. These are sores on the cornea -- the clear layer that covers the front of your eye. They are usually caused by an infection. Your eyes will be red and sensitive to light. It may feel like there's something in your eye.
    People who wear contacts and those with cold sores or other infections are more at risk.
    Your doctor may first try to treat the problem with eye drops to fight the infection.
  • Acute glaucoma. This happens when eye pressure builds quickly. Your eye will be very red and painful. You may see halos and feel sick to your stomach.
    Sudden attacks often happen when your pupils are enlarged. This can happen when you're stressed or in dark places like movie theaters.
    Taking certain drugs, including cold medications, can increase your chances too.
    If you think you have acute glaucoma, get to an emergency room. Fast treatment can save your eyesight.
  • Iritis. This is inflammation inside the front of your eye. Treatment with steroids can help with pain and swelling and prevent vision loss.
    If you have immune system conditions like rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis, you may be more likely to get this. Certain infections put you at risk too.

If you're unsure what's causing your red eyes, contact your doctor.

WebMD Medical Reference



National Health Services (Great Britain): "Red eye."

Mayo Clinic: "Red Eye."

American Academy of Family Physicians: "Corneal Abrasions."

National Eye Institute: "Dry Eye."

American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology: "Eye Allergy."

Nemours Foundation: "Pinkeye."

National Health Services (Great Britain): "Causes of Conjunctivitis."

Eye Institute, New Zealand: "Contact Lens Problems."

American Academy of Ophthalmology: "Could Contact Lenses Cause Redness Around Iris?"

National Eye Institute: "Facts About Blepharitis."

American Academy of Ophthalmology: "Halos Around Lights."

Mayo Clinic: "Iritis."

American Academy of Ophthalmology: "What Is a Corneal Ulcer?"

The Glaucoma Foundation: "Acute Glaucoma."

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