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Red, Irritated, Itchy, Watery Eyes: How to Tell If It's Pink Eye or Something Else

For 6 months, I struggled with both recurring pink eye as well as scleritis. I assumed I had seasonal allergies.

Are Your Eyes Making You Miserable?

Are your eyes red, irritated, itchy, watery, crusty, and making you miserable? Learn the difference between pink eye, allergies, and more serious medical problems.

Are your eyes red, irritated, itchy, watery, crusty, and making you miserable? Learn the difference between pink eye, allergies, and more serious medical problems.

Is It Allergies, Pink Eye, or Something More Serious?

Do you see that red, irritated, itchy, watery eye? That's mine on a good day lately. Actually, I have two of them, although one tends to look and feel a lot worse than the other. For six months, I struggled with both recurring pink eye as well as scleritis, a serious eye condition that involves inflammation of the whites of the eyes.

At first, I delayed seeking medical treatment because I assumed I was suffering with seasonal allergies (e.g., tree, ragwood, mold, pollen). But my eyes became so red they looked like demon's eyes, and they hurt intensely—a stabbing pain.

I wondered if it was pink eye or even some small foreign object in my eye, like an eyelash. However, over-the-counter medications and flushing my eyes did not seem to help.

I waited longer than I should have to consult a professional. If you have bloodshot, uncomfortable eyes that are bothering you, I'd like to help you avoid making that mistake by understanding possible causes and knowing when to see your ophthalmologist.

Bloodshot (or red) eyes can have many causes.

Bloodshot (or red) eyes can have many causes.

The Misery of Red, Itchy Eyes

We often take our eyes for granted until something goes wrong.

Your eyes feel red, irritated, itchy, uncomfortable or even painful. Maybe you have crusty discharge or watery eyes that make you look like you're crying. There are a number of potential causes. Could you be suffering from allergies, pink eye, or something more serious?

Ultimately, only an opthamologist can tell you, but here are some common possible reasons for red eyes and associated symptoms.

Why Are My Eyes Red? Common Causes

It Could BeOr ThisOr Even This

allergies or hay fever

foreign object in eye

episcleritis (inflammation of the membrane covering the white part of the eye)

pink eye (conjunctivitis)

blepharitis (inflammation that affects your eyelids)

eye strain

broken blood vessel in eye

glaucoma

corneal abrasion (scratch)

corneal ulcer or corneal herpes infection

chalazion (painless bump or nodule inside the eyelid.

iritis (inflammation of the colored part of the eye)

stye (a red, painful lump near the edge of the eyelid)

eye injury (trauma or burn)

an eyelid that is turned inward or outward

scleritis (inflammation of the white part of the eye)

uveitis (inflammation of the middle layer of the eye)

keratitis (inflammation of the cornea)

dry eyes (decreased tear production)

eyedrops

occular herpes

Moist, Weepy Eyes Are Uncomfortable

Pink eye can be caused by a variety of factors:  viruses, bacteria, allergens, or foreign objects.  The color of the discharge (clear, yellow, or green) can help your doctor discern the likely source of your ailment.

Pink eye can be caused by a variety of factors: viruses, bacteria, allergens, or foreign objects. The color of the discharge (clear, yellow, or green) can help your doctor discern the likely source of your ailment.

Common Causes of Eye Boogers

Description of Eye BoogerPossible Causes

watery

viral conjunctivitis, allergic conjunctivitis, eye allergies, dry eyes, eye injury, blocked tear duct

crusty

blocked tear duct, bacterial conjunctivitis and other eye infections, stye

sticky and gooey

stye, bacterial conjunctivitis and other eye infections, corneal ulcer, blocked tear duct

stringy

dry eyes, corneal ulcer, allergic conjunctivitis, eye allergies

Pink eye can affect one or both eyes and may be highly contagious for up to two weeks after syptoms start.

Pink eye can affect one or both eyes and may be highly contagious for up to two weeks after syptoms start.

Also called conjunctivitis, pink eye involves redness or pinkness of the conjunctivae, the membranes that cover the whites of the eyes and inner eyelids. Pink eye is a common ailment and can be highly contagious.

Symptoms

This illness is typically transmitted via direct contact with an infected person's eye secretions or bacteria living in the nose or sinuses—a good reason to cover those sneezes, wash those hands, and avoid touching your eyes!

Symptoms of pink eye can include

  • redness in the eye
  • swelling
  • watering
  • gritty feeling and an urge to rub the eye(s)
  • itchiness, irritation and/or a burning sensation
  • discharge that may be green, yellow, or clear
  • eyelid and eyelash crusting, particularly upon waking
  • enlargement or tenderness of the lymph node in front of the ear and
  • contact lenses that do not stay in place on the eye and/or feel uncomfortable.
red-irritated-itchy-watery-eyes-is-it-pink-eye-or-something-else

Causes and Potential Consequences

Pink eye can be caused by a variety of factors, including viruses, bacteria, allergies, and irritants (e.g., a chemical splash, foreign object). Viral and bacteria forms are highly contagious.

Applying a wet compress—a clean, wet washcloth—to the eyes can help alleviate the symptoms of viral or bacteria pink eye. Viral pink eye typically resolves on its own after a week or two. Bacterial pink eye, however, calls for a prescription of antibiotic eye drops.

Potential complications of pink eye may include an inflammation of the cornea which can impair vision. Repeated bouts of pink eye such as the kind I've been having suggest an underlying systemic disease. See an opthamologist if your suspected pink eye persists, if the discharge from your eyes is yellow or green (suggesting bacterial pink eye), or if you are unsure what it might be.

How to Prevent Pink Eye from Spreading

If you suspect you may have pink eye, keep this uncomfortable and potentially very contagious condition from spreading to others.

Here are some helpful tips:

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Avoid touching the eyes
  • Change pillowcase frequently
  • Avoid shaking hands when you have pink eye
  • Cover coughs and sneezes
  • Avoid sharing towels, washcloths, makeup, eyedrops, handkerchiefs and tissues.

If it's allergy season where you live, you may at first assume that's what is wrong with your red, itchy eyes. It's not necessarily the case.

Symptoms

As a rule of thumb, allergies carry with them fewer symptoms than infections. These symptoms typically include redness, itching, burning, and a clear watery discharge. (If the discharge from your eyes is anything more than this (e.g., colored, thick), assume an infection.)

With allergies, you may also have symptoms that extend beyond the eyes, such as nasal congestion, a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, scratchy or sore throat, and a cough from post-nasal drip.

Causes

Allergies occur when your immune system recognizes a substance as harmful and overreacts to it. Your environment is filled with potential allergens:

  • Dust mites
  • Pollen from trees, plants, grasses, ragweed, etc.
  • Animal dander
  • Molds
  • Contact lenses and lens solution and
  • Cosmetics.

Symptoms are often alleviated with allergy eye drops, artificial tears, and over-the-counter allergy medications (e.g., Benadryl, Flonase, Claritin, Zyrtec). Sometimes, however, a prescription is necessary, including general allergy medications (e.g., Singular), anti-inflammatory drops, and/or steroids.

Scleritis is an inflammation of the sclera, or whites of the eyes.  The sclera is the tough membrane that forms the outer wall of your eyeball.

Scleritis is an inflammation of the sclera, or whites of the eyes. The sclera is the tough membrane that forms the outer wall of your eyeball.

Who knew the whites of your eyes could become inflamed? The sclera is the tough membrane that forms the outer wall of your eyeball.

Symptoms

Scleritis is an uncommon but serious eye disease, and its symptoms include:

  • an angry red color (sometimes with a violet or even blue tinge) affecting one or both eyes; it can be either diffuse or comfined to a pie-shaped area
  • tenderness to the touch
  • blurred vision
  • extreme light sensitivity (photosensitivity)
  • teary eyes (you feel like your eyes are involuntarily leaking) and
  • moderate to severe pain that feels deep and penetrating (a stabbing "ice pick" pain) and may radiate to the face, jaw, and down the neck.
Scleritis feels as bad as it looks.  The redness can be diffuse or concentrated in a pie shape, as in this photo.  Pain is deep and penetrating.

Scleritis feels as bad as it looks. The redness can be diffuse or concentrated in a pie shape, as in this photo. Pain is deep and penetrating.

Causes and Potential Consequences of Scleritis

The cause of scleritis is unknown in about half of all cases. However, the other half of scleritis cases involve a manifestation of a systemic autoimmune condition, including:

  • Sarcoidosis
  • Rheumatoid Arthiritis (RA) and other types of inflammatory arthiritis
  • Lupus
  • Wegener Granulomatosis
  • Syphillis
  • Lyme Disease
  • Mixed Connective Tissue Disease
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease
  • Sjogren's Syndrome
  • Scleroderma
  • Vasculitis and
  • Tuberculosis.

If you're thinking "I don't have any of these diseases, so I'm fine," then be careful. Scleritis may be the initial symptom, meaning that you don't know you have one of these autoimmune diseases until you are faced with this eye condition. My opthamologist refered me to a rheumatologist for extensive testing for a wide range of conditions, including those above. The results were that I may have lupus.

Potential complications of scleritis include retinal detachment, angle-closure glaucoma, and loss of vision. Don't risk your eyesight. If you are concerned that you may have symptoms of scleritis, see your opthamologist immediately.

Why is my eye red, irritated, and teary?  There are a number of potential causes.  If in doubt, see an opthamologist.

Why is my eye red, irritated, and teary? There are a number of potential causes. If in doubt, see an opthamologist.

Summary of Similarities and Differences: Bacterial and Viral Pink Eye, Allergies & Scleritis

 Bacterial or Viral Pink EyeSeasonal AllergiesScleritis

Description of condition

A common eye ailment involving redness or pinkness of the conjunctivae, the membranes that cover the whites of the eyes and inner eyelids

A common condition that occurs when the body's immune system recognizes a substance as harmful and overreacts to it. May be chronic or last a long time.

A serious eye disease involving inflammation of the whites of one's eyes. Typically associated with underlying autoimmune conditions.

Affects one or both eyes?

One or both eyes

Both eyes

One or both eyes

Common symptoms

Redness, swelling, watering, grittiness, urge to rub one's eyes, discharge (yellow, green or clear), eyelid crusting upon waking, contact lenses that are uncomfortable or won't stay in place

Redness, itching, burning, clear watery discharge

Moderate to severe pain, redness, tearing, light sensitivity, eye tenderness, decreased visual acuity. Usually no eye discharge.

Painful or merely uncomfortable?

Uncomfortable or mildly painful

Uncomfortable, not painful

Moderately to severely painful; deep, penetrating pain

Common causes

Direct contact with an infected person; touching an item that an infected person has touched then touching one's eyes; poor handwashing

Dust mites; pollen from trees, plants, grasses, and weeds; animal dander; molds; contact lenses and lens solution; and cosmetics.

Half of cases have no apparent cause. The other half are due to underlying systemic diseases such as connective tissue disorders, autoimmune diseases, or vasculitic abnormalities.

Contagious?

Can be highly contagious

No

Typically not

Diagnosis

Exam by opthamologist may include sampling eye discharge for testing

Your family physician or opthamologist may refer you to an allergist who will take your personal and medical history and may perform allergy testing.

Exam by ophthamologist; blood tests for possible underlying medical conditions.

Treatment

Artificial tears; antibiotic eyedrops for bacterial pinkeye or secondary infections caused by scratching; viral pink eye should simply run its course in 1-2 weeks

Allergy drops, artificial tears, and over-the-counter allergy medications,

Specific treatment for underlying autoimmune condition, anti-inflammatory eye drops; NSAIDS, steroids, or immune modulating medications.

Long-term effects

Inflammation of the cornea which can impair vision

If left untreated, severe asthma, sinus problems, headache and gastrointestinal problems may occur.

Must be diagnosed, treated, and monitored by an ophthamologist to avoid long-term vision loss. Retinal detachment and angle-closure glaucoma are possible.

Prevention

Avoid touching the eyes; wash hands; cover sneezes and coughs; don't share items such as makeup, towels, eyedrops

Keep windows closed; use an air purifier/dehumidifier, zippered "allergen-impermeable" covers on pillows and mattresses; wash bedding in hot water weekly.

Generally no prevention. Be aware of any underlying autoimmune conditions.

When Should I Consult an Opthamologist?

An opthamologist can professionally examine, diagnose, and medically treat your eyes if they are red, irritated, itchy, painful, crusty, and watering.

An opthamologist can professionally examine, diagnose, and medically treat your eyes if they are red, irritated, itchy, painful, crusty, and watering.

When to Consult an Eye Doctor (Ophthamologist)

Seek An Opthamologist If You Have Any of These SymptomsEspecially If You ...

Physical changes to the eye, including crossed, bulging, or misaligned eyes, signs of infection (e.g., swelling, discharge, redness), unequal pupil size

Have a history of high intraoccular eye pressure

Pain in the eye

Have had a previous eye injury or are already experiencing eye conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, etc.

Changes in vision such as double vision, flashes of light, sudden spots, jagged lines or lightning streaks, wavy lines, haloes around lights

Are living with diabetes, HIV/AIDS, thyroid disease, rheumatological diseases such as lupus, or other immune compromising illnesses.

Loss of vision in one or both eyes, changes in color vision

Are of Hispanic or African descent

Changes in the field of vision, including shadows, black spots or blurriness, shadows, curtain-like loss of vision

Have a family history of glaucoma, cataract, macular degeneration, or retinal detachment

 

Are taking medications that can impact vision (e.g., Plaquanil, Prednisone, Ethambuto, many others)

 

Family members or others in close associate with you have the same symptoms (suggests contagion)

Help your doctor diagnose your condition by providing a precise and accurate description of what you are experiencing.  This will help you get on the path to recovery.

Help your doctor diagnose your condition by providing a precise and accurate description of what you are experiencing. This will help you get on the path to recovery.

4 Key Things to Tell Your Eye Doctor

When you call your eye doctor about red and irritated eyes, offer the following information so they can help triage you:

  • Symptoms: Redness in one eye or both? Pain or mere discomfort? Clear, yellow, green, and/or crusty discharge? Tearing? Itchiness? Changes in vision?
  • When your symptoms started
  • Anything you've tried, such as over-the-counter medications, compresses, eyedrops
  • Any associated medical conditions that you know of (e.g., autoimmune diseases)? Previous eye injury or conditions? History of high intraoccular pressure?

Providing a precise description of your problem will help you get an immediate appointment, if needed. It will assist the opthamologist in the diagnosis and treatment of your condition.

The world is looking better now!

The world is looking better now!

Sources

8 Ways to Get Rid of Dust Mites - MedicineNet. (2011, April 11). Retrieved from http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=20276

Boyd, K. (2015, March 1). What Is Scleritis? - American Academy of Ophthalmology. Retrieved from https://www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/what-is-scleritis.

Centers for Disease Control. (2016, June 30). Conjunctivitis. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/conjunctivitis/index.html.

Dahl, A. A. (2017, April 7). Scleritis Treatment, Symptoms, Causes & Risk Factors. Retrieved from http://www.medicinenet.com/scleritis/article.htm#scleritis_facts.

Gans, R. (2016, November 9). Itchy, Red Eyes? How to Tell If It's Allergy or Infection. Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/2016/11/itchy-red-eyes-how-to-tell-if-its-allergy-or-infection/.

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2016, February 26). Red eye causes - Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/red-eye/basics/causes/sym-20050748.

Medical Definition of Pinkeye. (2016, May 13). Retrieved from http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=11886.

National Institutes of Health. (2015, November). Facts About Pink Eye | National Eye Institute. Retrieved from https://nei.nih.gov/health/pinkeye/pink_facts.

Smith, J. R., Mackensen, F., & Rosenbaum, J. T. (2007). Therapy Insight: scleritis and its relationship to systemic autoimmune disease. Nature Clinical Practice Rheumatology, 3(4), 219-226. doi:10.1038/ncprheum0454

Surtenich, A. (2016, November). Eye discharge - causes, types, treatment. Retrieved from http://www.allaboutvision.com/conditions/eye-discharge.htm.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

Question: I have one eye that is a little red. It itches, and is watery and swollen around the eye. What can I take?

Answer: Until you can contact your ophthalmologist (eye doctor), you might try over-the-counter artificial tears or allergy drops with redness reducer. You can get them at any drug store, grocery store, or Walmart. If you're really itchy, you might try oral Benadryl. Do not touch your eyes even though they itch, never share eye drops, and wash your hands frequently.

In the article, there's a table ("Why Are My Eyes Red? Common Causes") that you should take another look at. It's a good reminder that while your ailment hopefully is something minor, it could potentially be any number of things. I know it's a weekend now, but first thing on Monday, please contact your eye doctor if the problem persists. You don't want to risk your vision. If you feel it's an emergency, contact them now. You don't want to assume that you know what this is. My father, for example, had a small foreign object in his eye that he didn't know was in there. He waited longer than he should have to see an eye doctor and found that he had suffered scratching to his cornea. As a reminder, I am not an eye doctor. Please take care of yourself.

© 2017 FlourishAnyway

Comments

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 20, 2020:

Peggy - Thanks for the pin. Sometimes you think you know what something is but it's more serious! The eyes are nothing to fool around with.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 19, 2020:

What you wrote is important information to share with others. I'll be pinning this to my health board. Having an annual eye exam is also important even if not having any symptoms. Many health concerns can be diagnosed and addressed early because of eye exams.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on January 20, 2018:

Marylou - You might try going back to the family doctor or see another opthamologist. I had to see two opthamologists because the first one did not properly treat my condition. Err on the side of caution. Eyesight is too important.

Marylou Beeson on January 19, 2018:

I was having some discomfort in both of my eyes. I did go to an eye Dr. but he didn't find any thing. The discomfort continued . A couple of months later I had a bad cold, cough, chest congestion. Then one day I looked in the mirror and my eyes were puffy and reddened. I got in to see my family Dr. , he said it appeared to be a bacterial infection and prescribed antibiotic eye drops 2 in each eye every 6 hours. It did seem to clear up, but I still have some of my discomforts.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on May 26, 2017:

Sha - That sounds unpleasant and I hope you do see your eye doctor. Even though it's probably eye strain, your doctor could probably provide some relief in the form of a more current prescription. Good luck! Glad to hear from you!

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on May 26, 2017:

My eyes have been red for the last several weeks. They don't itch or ooze or feel scratchy. I attribute it to the computer screen I stare at all day, the fluorescent lights in my office and the fact that I haven't been to the eye doctor in 5 years.

I put drops in my eyes after my shower and a few times a day, if needed. By the end of the work day, my eyes are quite red and often have a burning sensation.

I've twisted off all but one of the bulbs in my office and plan on seeing an eye doctor soon. I'm thinking my prescription may have changed.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on May 01, 2017:

Jo - I appreciate your reading and taking the time to comment. Have a great week!

Jo Miller from Tennessee on May 01, 2017:

This was very helpful, Flourish. Thanks for all the information.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 30, 2017:

MsDora - I sure wish I could undo that scleritis diagnosis. I hadn't heard of it either and made the mistake that I was dealing with allergies or pink eye, something that didn't potentially affect my long term vision if untreated. I had no idea that my vision was at risk and red, watery, painful eyes were the "red flag" to get help immediately.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on April 30, 2017:

Thanks for the information and the warnings. I don't think that I even heard the word 'scleritis' until now. Your presentation is clearly presented and very helpful.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 29, 2017:

Devika - Thank you for your kind endorsement. I hope you are doing well.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 29, 2017:

Informative and well presented. This is important and a must read. You displayed with accurate photos and in detail.

Devika on April 29, 2017:

A well informed hub. You explained in detail. I learned a lot here and you presented with pride. Important facts indeed!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 27, 2017:

Debangee - Thank you for the compliment!

DEBANGEE MANDAL from India on April 27, 2017:

Very informative .. nicely explained. Keep it up!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 27, 2017:

Linda - I appreciate your concern and kind sentiments. Hope your week is fabuous.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on April 26, 2017:

Thanks for sharing some great information, Flourish. This is an excellent and very helpful article. I hope your eye problems improve soon.

Martie Coetser from South Africa on April 25, 2017:

This is an excellent, well-presented, and comprehensive article about eye diseases. The best I have ever read about the subject.

I hope that whatever's wrong with your eyes will be fixed in no time.

BTW, my eyes itched, burned and watered while reading this article. Lol!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 25, 2017:

Larry - Thanks a bunch for reading. Have a great week. I look forward to reading more from you soon.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on April 25, 2017:

Just wonderfully helpful. I know pink eye can be hard to distinguish.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 25, 2017:

Ann - Eye trouble is awful, very limiting. I'll add occular herpes to the table. I'm glad your dad would approve. I've taken special care to use well-regarded sources.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 25, 2017:

MizBejabbers - Oh, your son's situation sounds terrible. I hope your eye problems settle down. Spring is nice but for those who suffer allergies, it's difficult. Thanks for reading and adding your personal accounts.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on April 25, 2017:

Very comprehensive and well-written information. People should read and heed because our eyes are so important to our quality of life. Every spring and fall I run around with pink-eye symptoms, including right now. I don't think I could live without my Zaditor drops during allergy season. One of my sons had a grass allergy so bad that when he played in the grass during pollen season, the whites of his eyes would swell 1/4 inch beyond his irises. It was scary.

Ann Carr from SW England on April 25, 2017:

This is an excellent, informative hub with lots of sensible advice. Trouble with your eyes is one of the worst things.

I would add optical shingles to this. I had it last year, it gave me red eyes, stabbing pains and blisters on my nose and forehead. Apparently it could have been a lot worse, which is another reason why one should go to seek treatment about any such worries.

Optical shingles is when the 'herpes' virus from, say, chicken pox lies dormant in your system and breaks out for various reasons or sometimes without any particular reason at all. It must be treated very quickly or can cause permanent damage even to the brain.

It's great that you've brought these matters to our attention. My father was an ophthalmic optometrist and I can hear him saying 'hear, hear' all the way through this article!

Ann

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 24, 2017:

Bill - That's funny. I'm sure there are songs related to the topic! Glad you don't deal with this issue. Scleritis hurts.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 24, 2017:

I'm so accustomed to your play list, I was, at first, trying to think of songs about red, irritated eyes. LOL True story! Now, back to reality...this has never been a problem for me; having said that, I'm sure my eyes will start itching tomorrow. :) Thanks in advance for the information.