Is there anything more irritating than itchy eyes? When your eyes are persistently prickly, it's nearly impossible to focus on anything other than stopping the scratchy sensation straight away. But to temper the tickly feeling, you first need to know what's peeving your peepers.
Here, experts share seven common causes of infuriatingly itchy eyes, plus ways to soothe the scratchiness.
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When your eyes are itchy, your first reflex is likely to rub them for some relief, but try to resist the urge. Rubbing your eyes can tear the top corneal layer, producing pain and potentially causing an infection, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
1. You Have Seasonal Allergies
Seasonal allergies are the most probable culprit behind intensely itchy eyes.
"During allergy season, there are extremely high levels of pollen particles in the air, which land in and on our body surfaces such as the eye," says Neeta Ogden, MD, an allergy, asthma and immunology specialist.
"If you have a seasonal allergy, this can quickly lead to the allergic immune system kicking into gear and releasing chemical mediators that cause an intense localized reaction in the eye, including itching, tearing and redness," Dr. Ogden says.
In addition to itchy, watery or burning eyes, other common seasonal allergy symptoms include:
- Runny nose
- Nasal congestion
- Difficulty breathing
Managing your seasonal allergies is key when it comes to preventing more serious eye-related problems. Indeed, "if left untreated, these symptoms can turn into more severe and chronic inflammation and even an infection called conjunctivitis," Dr. Ogden says.
Fortunately, the following strategies can help safeguard your eyes against the effects of pollen and other seasonal allergens:
- Apply eye drops. At the first indication of symptoms, start using an allergy eye drop. Dr. Ogden recommends LASTACAFT ($15.84, Walmart.com) antihistamine eye drops for fast relief of itchy eyes.
- Practice avoidance and sport protective eyewear. "Avoid going outside on high pollen count days," Dr. Ogden says. "But if you must be outside, protect your eyes and wear wraparound sunglasses."
- Rinse your eyes. "Before you go to bed, gently wipe down your lids and lashes with a mild wipe and rinse out the eyes with a preservative-free saline wash (or even contact lens solution) to minimize continued pollen exposure while you sleep," Dr. Ogden says.
2. You Have a Food Allergy
Just like pollen and ragweed, in some people, certain foods can cause a systemic allergic reaction that results in red, scratchy eyes.
Here's why: "When you are exposed to an allergic food trigger, multiple organ systems can get involved — this may include the eye, skin, respiratory, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal systems — and develop a response as the whole body reacts to the food allergen," Dr. Ogden says.
In addition to itchy eyes, other possible signs of a food allergy include, per the Mayo Clinic:
- Tingling or itching in the mouth
- Hives or eczema
- Swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat or other parts of the body
- Wheezing, nasal congestion or trouble breathing
- Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
But keep in mind, your body might respond differently every time you encounter a trigger food. "This is why you might notice your eyes itch or sometimes just the skin around your eye becomes inflamed (eyelid dermatitis) when you have a food allergic reaction," Dr. Ogden says.
For some people, a food allergy can cause a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis. Symptoms include, per the Mayo Clinic:
- Constriction and tightening of the airways
- A swollen throat or the sensation of a lump in your throat that makes it difficult to breathe
- Shock with a severe drop in blood pressure
- Rapid pulse
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or loss of consciousness
If you experience any of these symptoms, seek emergency medical treatment immediately as anaphylaxis may can lead to a coma or even death, according to the Mayo Clinic.
"The most important thing is to identify what you are allergic to and then practice avoidance to prevent accidental ingestion and further allergic reactions," Dr. Ogden says.
To prevent serious complications, "it's vital that you have a food allergy action plan that you have reviewed with your health care provider," she adds.
“If it’s clear that your itchy eyes are due to a seasonal or food allergy, it’s very important to get tested to learn about your allergic triggers so you can be aware and avoid them,” Dr. Ogden says. “That will also allow you to be prepared with medications that you may need and should be used at the first hint of symptoms."
3. You Have an Eye Infection
Sometimes, an eye infection may produce some of the same problems (read: redness and scratchiness) as seasonal allergies. Indeed, eye infections can instigate itchy eyes, says optometrist Jaclyn Garlich, OD.
So how can you tell if you're dealing with an infection or allergies? Unlike seasonal allergies, an eye infection will present with thick or mucous-like discharge and light sensitivity, Dr. Garlich says.
Additionally, you might also experience pain and/or a gritty sensation in the eyes, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
If you suspect you have an eye infection, see an eye care professional who can properly assess, diagnose and prescribe you the proper medication. For example, if you have a bacterial eye infection, your doctor may treat you with antibiotic eye drops while cold compresses and moistening eye drops can help lessen discomfort caused by a viral infection, per the Cleveland Clinic.
4. You Have Dry Eye
Your incessantly itchy eyeballs may also be due to dry eye, a condition that occurs when you don't produce enough (or make the right type of) tears.
The thing is, if you don't have enough tears to keep your eyes moist, they can become irritated (hence the itchy, scratchy sensation).
Dry eye can also cause a variety of other symptoms, including the following, per the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO):
- Redness, stinging and burning.
- Blurred vision
- A gritty feeling like something is in your eye
- Strings of mucus in or around your eyes
- Pain when wearing contact lenses
- Excessive tears (your eyes make more tears when they're irritated)
If you're dealing with dry eye, see your eye doctor, who can perform an eye exam and help determine if any underlying health issues are causing the problem.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to decrease the discomfort of dry eye:
- Practice the 20-20-20 rule. "Exposure to digital screens is a common cause of eye dryness," Dr. Garlich says. "Patients who use screens most of the day and experience eye dryness, irritation and discomfort should follow the 20/20/20 rule," she says. This involves taking a break from staring at your screen every 20 minutes by looking at something else 20 feet away for 20 seconds. "Be sure to blink during this break," Dr. Garlich adds.
- Use eye drops. To soothe dry eyes, it's important to keep them moist. Dr. Garlich recommends REFRESH Digital PF ($11.99, Amazon), a preservative-free, over-the-counter lubricating eye drop that's formulated to relieve dry, irritated eyes that may be associated with extended screen time.
- Opt for omega-3s. Taking a fish oil supplement, which contains omega-3 fatty acids, may help reduce inflammation and enhance your eyes' meibomian glands, which generate the oily part of tears, thereby easing dry eye symptoms, according to the AAO.
- Consider punctual plugs. Some people find relief for dry eye through the placement of punctual plugs, teeny silicone or gel plugs that your doctor inserts in your tear ducts, per the AAO. Punctual plugs help your natural tears stay in your eyes, so your eyeballs stay moister.
5. You Have Eczema
Eczema can affect any part of your body where there's skin (read: everywhere), including the sensitive skin around your eyes and eyelids. Yep, this inflammatory skin condition can flare up around the eyes, causing itchy, red, dry and scaly skin, Dr. Garlich says.
Over-the-counter ointments like Aquaphor ($4.99, Target.com) can soothe the irritated skin and are safe to use around the eye, Dr. Garlich says.
However, if your case is more severe, "your doctor may also need to prescribe a steroid to help calm the inflammation," she adds.
Never apply over-the-counter steroid creams near your eyes.
6. It’s a Side Effect of Your Medication
Sometimes certain medicines you're taking can mess with your eyes and initiate itchiness.
"Occasionally, a patient will have an allergic reaction to prescription eye drops," Dr. Garlich says. "This allergic response can be due to the preservative in the eye drop or the medication itself."
Other common medicines that cause allergic reactions in the eyes are atropine (usually used before eye exams to dilate the pupil) and neomycin (an antibiotic used to treat eye infections), according to the National Eczema Society. Preservatives in contact lens systems can affect your eyes as well.
In addition to itchiness, watch out for symptoms such as red, watery eyes and eyelid swelling, which may also indicate an allergic response to a medication, Dr. Garlich says.
If you believe your meds might be making your eyes itchy, "notify your doctor, as you will likely need to switch to a different medication," Dr. Garlich says.
The same advice holds for your contact lenses. Lenses worn improperly (i.e. used beyond their recommended timeframe) could irritate your eyes. If you think your contacts could be the culprit, talk to your doctor about how you're using them or about switching to a different type or brand that's less irritating.
7. You Have Contact Dermatitis
Contact dermatitis — an itchy rash caused by direct contact with an irritating substance — could also be the source of your scratchy eyes, Dr. Ogden says.
Makeup (especially the metals and preservatives in cosmetics) is one of the most common culprits of contact dermatitis, Dr. Ogden says.
Face washes, detergents and solvents can also irritate and damage the delicate skin around your eyes, according to the National Eczema Society.
Even products you don't place directly on your eyes or face — like nail polish, hair dye or perfume — can produce an itchy rash in your eye region, per the National Eczema Society.
"While contact dermatitis tends to only affect the skin around the eyes, causing a periorbital dermatitis, occasionally we can see the actual eye affected as well," Dr. Ogden says.
To clear up contact dermatitis and inhibit the itch in your eyes, you must first identify which products are causing your reaction and avoid using them, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Once you stop using the irritating substance, your itchy rash should resolve between two and four weeks. In the meantime, you can find relief and soothe your skin by applying a cool, wet compress, per the Mayo Clinic.
When to See a Doctor About Itchy Eyes
"If your symptoms are not alleviated with over-the-counter options, or if your vision is blurry, you have eye pain or your eyes are excessively red, seek the guidance of an eye care provider," Dr. Garlich says.
"Likewise, if itchy eyes persist more than a few days, it is essential to see a doctor," Dr. Ogden adds. Symptoms can continue to get worse and lead to conjunctivitis (a more severe form of inflammation and infection requiring antibiotics), she explains.
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Why Are My Eyes Itchy? Answers From an Expert”
- Mayo Clinic: “Food allergy”
- Mayo Clinic: “Contact dermatitis”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Itchy, Red Eyes? How to Tell If It’s Allergy or Infection”
- American Academy of Ophthalmology: “The Benefits of Fish Oil for Dry Eye”
- National Eczema Society: “Eczema around the eyes”
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.