Eye Strain

You can strain your eyes by reading, driving long distances and constantly using digital devices. Treatment can involve using lubricating eye drops frequently and changing how you work. Start with an eye exam.


Infographic of eye strain symptoms
You may develop eye strain or fatigue after periods of intense use of your eyes, and you may have symptoms like dry, itchy or burning eyes, blurred vision, watery eyes, light sensitivity or difficulty keeping your eyes open.

What is eye strain?

Eye strain is a common condition caused by intense use of your eyes, such as by reading, using digital devices or driving long distances. Other names for eye strain are eye fatigue and asthenopia.

Eye strain can cause discomfort, but it’s usually not a serious condition. Plus, there are many things you can do to reduce or prevent eye strain. If you can’t relieve your eye strain with some lifestyle changes, including the use of artificial tears, there’s a chance that it may be a symptom of something more serious than eye fatigue. That’s why getting an eye exam is always a good idea.

Types of eye strain

In recent years, the main common cause of eye strain is the extended use of computers or other digital devices, such as cell phones or tablets. The term for this type of eye strain is digital eye strain.

Eye strain can be temporary or long-lasting.

How common is eye strain?

Temporary eye strain is very common. Most people find that their eyes are tired after a long day.

Digital eye strain is also very common. An estimated 2 out of 3 people in the U.S. report digital eye strain symptoms.


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Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of eye strain?

Symptoms of eye strain affect your eyes as well as other parts of your body.

Symptoms of eye strain that affect your eyes include:

Symptoms of eye strain that affect other parts of your body include:

What causes eye strain?

Eye strain is caused by intensely focusing your eyes during a task. Causes can include:

  • Driving.
  • Reading.
  • Computer and cell phone use.
  • Playing video games.
  • Doing detailed work, such as writing, sewing or crafting.
  • Not having enough available light while doing a task.
  • Not blinking enough.

People with prior eye conditions, like uncorrected vision or eye muscle imbalance, are at greater risk of eye strain. Stress and fatigue can also contribute to eye strain.

Causes of digital eye strain

Digital eye strain has several distinct causes. Researchers have found that when people use computers or other digital screens, they blink less. This leads to dry eyes, which can contribute to eye strain.

Digital devices can also cause eye strain because of their glare, or when there’s poor contrast between the words on the screen and the background. Improper distance from the screen and poor lighting can also lead to eye strain.

One of the most important things you can do for your eyes in these cases is to use eye drops like artificial tears.

What are the risk factors for eye strain?

Risk factors for eye strain can include:

  • Working in front of a computer or screen for long periods of time.
  • Doing tasks that require your eyes to focus for extended periods of time,
  • Having dry eyes.
  • Having muscle problems within your eye.
  • Driving long distances, especially if there’s wind or air blowing directly at your eyes.


Diagnosis and Tests

How is eye strain diagnosed?

Most times, eye strain will disappear on its own. In those cases, you don’t need to see a healthcare provider. You can usually treat temporary eye strain with some simple lifestyle changes and being aware of what kinds of tasks bother your eyes.

But if your eye strain is severe or long term, you should make an appointment with a medical provider to rule out any more serious conditions.

A healthcare provider or eye care provider can diagnose eye strain in their office. During this visit, they’ll discuss the following topics:

  • What your symptoms are.
  • When your symptoms started.
  • When your symptoms occur.
  • What tasks you might be doing when symptoms happen.

Your provider may also do a physical exam to look for muscle imbalance, uncorrected refractive errors and other issues with the eye itself. Refractive errors are things like nearsightedness (myopia) or farsightedness (hyperopia).

Management and Treatment

How is eye strain treated or managed?

You can usually treat eye strain with lifestyle changes. These may include wearing eyeglasses or contact lenses for certain types of activities. Taking breaks from reading, writing and driving can also help reduce eye strain.

One main suggestion for reducing digital eye strain is to follow the 20-20-20 rule. This rule says to take a 20-second break to view something 20 feet away from you every 20 minutes.

Other treatment (management) tips for eye strain include:

  • Using lubricating eye drops.
  • Adjusting your lighting based on your activity.
  • Using a humidifier.
  • Quitting smoking. Smoking is harmful to your eyes.


What are complications related to eye strain?

Eye strain can be irritating, but it’s rarely more than a nuisance. However, one thing to consider with digital eye strain is the question of blue light and how it affects your eyes.

The majority of blue light you see comes from the sun. The sun emits visible light in a spectrum of colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. The blue end of the spectrum has more energy and shorter wavelengths than the red end of the spectrum.

Blue light, which can also come from digital devices and light bulbs, is necessary for eye development, visual function and overall good health. Some researchers think that recent increases in nearsightedness may be due to a lack of sunlight.

Other researchers think that too much exposure to blue light may eventually damage your retina. Scientists will continue to study the effects of blue light on eye health.


Can eye strain be prevented?

In order to prevent eye strain, or lower your risk for eye strain, you may find it helpful to:

  • Choose screens that tilt and swivel.
  • Clean your screens (and lenses) regularly because smudges can reduce contrast.
  • Use a glare filter.
  • Reduce glare on your screen through proper lighting.
  • Use an adjustable chair.
  • Adjust your car’s heaters so air isn’t blowing directly into your eyes.
  • Use lubricating eye drops when your eyes feel dry. Use them as frequently as your provider recommends.
  • Increase the number of times you blink.
  • Limit the amount of time you use digital devices, if possible.
  • Follow your eye care provider’s recommendations on contact lens cleaning and use.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have eye strain?

In most cases, you can expect eye strain to improve relatively quickly after you stop doing the things that are causing the fatigue.

If eye strain doesn’t improve quickly, or if you feel like you have eye strain all of the time, then you should consider speaking to a healthcare provider.

It’s always a good idea to get an eye exam if you experience any changes in vision at all, including more frequent or long-lasting bouts of eye strain.

Living With

When should I see my healthcare provider?

You should have regular appointments with an eye care provider. Ask them to suggest a schedule. If you have eye strain that’s interfering with your ability to do your activities or with feeling healthy, call your eye care provider and make an appointment.

When should I go to an emergency room?

Always get immediate medical aid if you have new or worsening eye pain, especially if it comes on suddenly. Go to an emergency room if you have a sudden loss of vision.

What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?

If you’re discussing eye strain with your provider, you may want to ask questions like:

  • What do you suggest I do to prevent eye strain?
  • Do you recommend a certain type of artificial tears or eye drops?
  • Are there home remedies for eye strain that you prefer?
  • When should I contact you about eye strain or other issues with eye health?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Eye strain is something that most people have experience with, especially because many people use digital devices for work and entertainment. Normally, eye strain is uncomfortable and irritating, but it’s not dangerous. If you find that you’re having difficulty with tired eyes, one good place to start would be an eye exam. You can combine tips from your eye care provider with adjustments to your lifestyle and your environment.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 07/14/2023.

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