Pain is your body's early warning system. A twinge tells you that something you're doing causes harm. If it worsens, your discomfort could entice you to get help to preserve your health.
Your eyes (and your sight) are critical to your health and well-being. It's not surprising that they're wired with many pain sensors. Each nerve ending helps you preserve your eyesight. Pain can be caused by all sorts of issues, but infections, injuries, and diseases are common culprits. (Learn more)
Sometimes, eye pain is a symptom of a serious issue that requires immediate medical care. If your discomfort is intense and caused by vision changes, fever, and other similarly severe symptoms, it's best to head right to the emergency room. (Learn more)
First aid and at-home care are appropriate for some types of eye pain. But you'll need to check with your doctor to ensure your plans are safe for your eyes. For example, some types of eye drops can worsen diseases like glaucoma. Before you try anything at home, it's best to consult with an expert. (Learn more)
You can prevent some issues that cause sore eyes through proper hygiene steps. You can block others by paying attention to eye protection. And finally, regular appointments with a doctor you trust can help you spot serious eye troubles before they cause you pain. (Learn more)
Common Causes of Eye Pain
Your eyes are lined with nerve endings, and they ripple with discomfort when something goes amiss. Those pain signals do more than cause discomfort. They also alert you that something is wrong with your eyes, and that could prompt you to get the care you need to protect your vision.
Common causes of eye pain include:
- Conjunctivitis. The conjunctiva is the transparent layer of tissue that covers the white part of your eye and the inside of your eyelid. The American Optometric Association says there are several different types of conjunctivitis. Some are caused by allergies, others by bacteria, and still others by a virus. Your treatment depends on the cause, and with care, these issues often resolve.
- Corneal abrasion. Your eyelids should protect your cornea from scrapes and scratches, but when they fail, corneal abrasions appear. These are extremely painful, and the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) says the pain is often accompanied by blurry vision, light sensitivity, and the feeling that something is in your eye.Moisturizing drops can help to ease mild cases. Your doctor might need to cover your eye with a patch if the cut is extensive or deep.
- Corneal infection. Bacteria can grow between your contacts and your eye, or colonies can appear inside a tiny corneal abrasion. These infections are very painful, especially as they grow and impact more tissue. Antibiotic drops, sometimes combined with oral medications, can ease the discomfort.
- Eyelid trauma. Your eyelids should point out, away from your cornea. But sometimes they point up or inward. You may feel a scraping sensation with each blink. Sometimes, experts say, you only notice a problem when you squeeze your eyelids shut.Surgery can help turn the lashes in the right direction, so they don't scratch your cornea.
- Glaucoma. The most common form of this sight-stealing disease (open-angle) causes no pain at all. But the acute angle-closure form causes severe eye pain, says the BrightFocus Foundation, along with headache and nausea.This is a medical emergency, and surgery is the best solution. Your doctor can use a laser to allow fluids to escape from your eye and your pain to resolve.
- Optic neuritis. Your optic nerve gathers sensory information and transmits it to your brain. According to AAO, the body's immune system may attack the optic nerve, and when that happens, you may feel intense pain. You may also have changes in your vision.Some people improve with no treatment at all, but others need steroid medications to ease swelling.
- Trauma. Sticks, balls, branches, machinery, and chemicals can all harm your eyes, especially if you're not using protective eyewear. The treatment you'll need often depends on the cause and severity of your injury, but treatment in an emergency room is often needed.
- Uveitis. Inflammation of the middle layer of the eye is known as uveitis, and it's typically caused by immune system issues, infections, or toxins. In addition to pain, you may have vision changes and sensitivity to light.Treatment often focuses on reducing inflammation, and eye drops can help with that, says the National Eye Institute.
Is Your Eye Pain an Emergency?
Quick action is important when your eye hurts. But some types of eye injury aren't true medical crises that require a trip to the emergency room.
You should seek emergency care if your eye pain is:
- Extreme. Mild pain may indicate a minor problem. But excruciating discomfort could be a sign that something serious is happening to your eyes. Your pain may make you vomit or feel queasy too.
- Accompanied by vision changes. Sudden halos around lights, blackness, or something similar could be a serious symptom.
- Limiting eye movement. You may find that you can't move your eye, or you can't keep it open.
- Caused by chemicals or a foreign object. You'll need quick treatment to flush the irritants from your eye.
- Paired with blood or pus. Discharge like this indicates that something serious is harming your eye.
It's appropriate to call 911 or visit an emergency room in these situations. Your quick thinking could help to preserve your vision.
If you're seeing an eye doctor to control an ophthalmic condition, or if you just had eye surgery, your pain could be a sign of trouble. Call your doctor right away and ask what to do next.
First Aid for Some Eye Issues
If your eye pain doesn't merit a trip to the emergency room, a call to your doctor is a wise next step. Together, you can determine what you should do to ease the discomfort. Your doctor might also tell you what to avoid, so you don't make your pain spike.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine says it's appropriate to examine your eye and attempt to determine the cause of the pain. You should never press or rub your eye, even if it hurts, and you shouldn't use cotton swabs or tweezers on your eye.
You could try:
- Cool compresses. A washcloth run under cold water and placed on your closed eyes could slow down pain signals and bring relief.
- Avoiding triggers. Smoke, heavy perfumes, dust, and chlorine could all enhance eye discomfort. Be kind to your eyes as they heal.
- Over-the-counter medications. Aspirin and other similar medications could help to keep you comfortable. But make sure your doctor approves.
You might be tempted to buy eye drops to reduce redness and soothe discomfort. Check with your doctor first. Experts point out that some types of eye drops can increase eye pressure, and that could make symptoms caused by glaucoma more acute. Make sure your doctor is aware of and approves of your plan before you put drops in your eyes.
You Can Prevent Sore Eyes
Your eyes deserve your protection. Many causes of sore eyes can be prevented altogether with a few commonsense tips.
Protect your eyes through:
- Good hygiene. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing your hands often with soap and water. Avoid sharing personal items, including contact lens containers, makeup, and eye drops.
- Proper protection. The American Academy of Ophthalmology says 90 percent of eye injuries can be prevented with proper protective eyewear. Cover your eyes when you're playing sports, using chemicals, performing home repairs, and tackling other tasks that put your eyes at risk. Confirm that the eye protection you’re using is appropriate for the task at hand.
- Regular exams. Some painful eye conditions, including glaucoma, can be caught early during a comprehensive exam with an eye health professional. Don't skip your appointments, and talk with your doctor about any eye health issue that bothers you.
Conjunctivitis. American Optometric Association.
What Is Corneal Abrasion? (April 2019). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Is Glaucoma Painful? (April 2018). BrightFocus Foundation.
Entropion and Ectropion. (June 2019). Merck Manual Consumer Version.
What Is Optic Neuritis? (June 2019). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
At a Glance: Uveitis. (July 2019). National Eye Institute.
This Is When to See a Doctor About Eye Pain ASAP. (June 2018). Self.
Eye Emergencies. (May 2019). U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Home Remedies for Bloodshot Eyes — And When to See a Doctor. (October 2017). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
The Best Eye Drops for People With Red Eyes. (February 2017). Medical News Today.
Help Protect Yourself from Getting and Spreading Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis). (October 2017). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Preventing Eye Injuries. (May 2019). American Academy of Ophthalmology.