Common Causes of Irritated Eyes

Red, itchy eyes are never a fun experience, but could those symptoms be a sign of a potentially blinding condition? The Doctors share the four most common causes of irritated eyes and when you should head to the ER.


Conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, is an infection of the transparent membrane that lines your eyelid. The telltale redness in the whites of the eyes is caused by the inflammation of the small blood vessels. It is commonly caused by a bacterial or viral infection and is highly contagious. 

Typical symptoms of conjunctivitis include redness and itchiness in one or both eyes, a gritty feeling or discharge in one or both eyes that can form a crust during sleep and prevent your eye or eyes from opening in the morning.

The course of treatment will depend on the cause of the infection. Bacterial pink eye can be treated with antibiotic eye drops or ointment, whereas viral conjunctivitis generally requires no treatment and runs its course in up to two or three weeks. 

Early diagnosis and treatment can limit the spread of the infection.


Dry Eye

Dry eye occurs when your natural tears do not provide a sufficient amount of moisture. This commonly occurs in older adults, but can also occur as a result of looking at a computer screen for several hours, while riding a bike, sitting in an air-conditioned room or when on an airplane.

Dry eyes are also associated with certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, and can also be caused by medications, such as those used to treat high blood pressure, certain antidepressants, and antihistamines and decongestants.

Common symptoms of dry eye include stinging, burning or a scratchy sensation in or around the eyes, sensitivity to light, redness, blurred vision, difficulty wearing contact lenses and a sensation of having something in your eyes.

For occasional or mild dry eye, over-the-counter eye drops can be used to relieve symptoms. In some cases, treating an underlying health issue can help reverse dry eyes.



A sty is a red, painful bump near the edge of the eyelid, which can resemble a boil or a pimple. Commonly caused by a blocked sweat gland or bacteria and often filled with pus, most sties are harmless and will not affect your vision. 

Common symptoms of a sty include a red lump on the eyelid, eyelid pain or swelling, tearing and crusting around the eyelids.

Sties typically go away on their own and can be treated at home by applying a warm washcloth to your closed eyelid for 10 to 15 minutes several times a day. If your eyelid infection persists or spreads, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. 

Contact your doctor if the sty doesn’t start to improve after 48 hours or if redness and swelling spread beyond your eyelid to other parts of your face.


Ocular Herpes

There are more than 500,000 cases of ocular herpes in the U.S. each year. One of the leading causes of corneal blindness, the virus typically causes a branching sore or ulcer on the surface of the cornea, called a dendritic ulcer. Although ocular herpes is not a sexually transmitted disease, it is very contagious and can be transmitted through contact with another person who is experiencing an outbreak or through self-contact and contamination during an active herpes infection.

Common symptoms include tearing, redness, blurry vision and ocular discomfort. Additionally, a cold sore may develop elsewhere on the face.

Antiviral drops or pills can be used to treat infectious ulcers. Long-term use of antiviral medication can help inhibit the recurrence of outbreaks. For severe cases in which the virus has resulted in vision-impairing scars, corneal transplant surgery may be recommended.