3 reasons your eyes might be red

It’s said that your eyes are the window to your soul, but what about when you have a case of red eye? No one wants to feel embarrassed or deal with the hassle of red eyes. People may avoid you, thinking it’s something contagious when it could be something as simple as the dust in your office.

Here’s a closer look at some reasons your eyes might be red.

Why are your eyes red?

Baylor Scott & White optometrist William White, OD, said red eyes are typically caused by one of three main factors:

  1. Infection, typically a virus or bacteria.
  2. Environment, typically allergies, lack of sleep, or exposure to irritants.
  3. Systemic, typically decreased tear production due to aging or systemic inflammation such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis (both can cause chronic dryness and inflammation).

“The red appearance is caused by enlargement, or dilation, of the blood vessels, typically in a tissue called the conjunctiva,” Dr. White said. “Occasionally, a blood vessel will break and can cause pooling of the blood between the layers. Thankfully, this is not usually a problem and just takes a week or two to slowly clear and no treatment is needed.”

Most red eye problems can be identified and treated without any serious complications.

Identifying the cause of red eyes

In order to understand red eye, your optometrist will try to identify the cause of redness, which involves a very good history. Be sure to tell him or her about your medications and environment. For example, a farmer who is constantly exposed to wind and dust will likely have a different cause for their redness than a person who works in an office.

Some questions you may be asked include:

“Explore."
  • How often are your eyes becoming red?
  • Is it one or both eyes?
  • Is there any pain or itching with the redness?
  • Does anything seem to make it worse or better?

After you answer these questions, your provider may take a look in your eyes and surrounding tissue. During this thorough examination, he may see explanations of what is causing the red eye.

How to tell if you have pink eye

Dr. White explains that just because the eye is red does not mean the person has “pink eye.” Viral conjunctivitis (“pink eye”) is very contagious and should be treated by your doctor. But before you avoid your friend or coworker with red eyes, remember that there are other causes of redness.

“Most redness is going to be caused by allergies or dryness and is not spread from person to person,” said Dr. White.

Treating red eyes

Consider the following when treating red eyes:

1. Red eyes due to allergies

For red itchy eyes caused by allergies, Dr. White advises over-the-counter medicines, used in the morning and at night. These drops work best if they are started about a week before allergy season and continued each day until the allergen is no longer active.

2. Red eyes due to dryness, wind or dust

Artificial tears work well if the cause is dryness or exposure something such as wind or dust. Dr. White typically advises using eye drops a few times a day. Putting the drop in the refrigerator can also provide extra relief but is not always necessary.

3. Red eyes that are swollen

Cold compresses can be very helpful for red, swollen eyes. Dr. White typically advises a cold washcloth or ice pack to be used as needed but for no longer than 10 minutes at a time.

What about red eye drops?

“Red eye” drops can be helpful but should only be used for a short time.

“Using a drop such does not treat the problem,” said Dr. White. “These drops constrict the blood vessels and make the eye less red, but it does not address the reason for the redness.”

In fact, as you keep using these drops, it can actually cause the eye to become redder because your blood vessels will become accustomed to the drug causing them to constrict.

“Once the drug wears off the vessels will rebound and become enlarged or dilated,” said Dr. White. “This makes the eye red again and many people will begin to use the drop more frequently to help combat the redness that is being caused by the drop itself.”

So before you get stuck in this eye-drop cycle, try not to use the drops more than three to four times a day, and only for a couple days.

“Again, these drops just cover up the redness, so if a patients eyes are still red after a day or two of use, then there is likely a constant problem that needs to be addressed,” said Dr. White.

If you’ve been using these “red eye” drops for some time, try switching to a different drop to stop the cycle. As a substitute, use drops that say “eye lubrication” or “tear replacement.” These are gentle and will not cause your eyes to get even worse over time.

Best of all, you’re better off figuring out the underlying cause of the redness and treating the cause instead. Find a doctor near you to solve your red eye woes.

About the author

Jill Taylor
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I contribute content and skills as a freelance writer for Baylor Scott & White Health. I enjoy improving our connection with our readers, patients and communities by assisting with a wide range of writing projects.

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3 reasons your eyes might be red