What causes eye pain?

Eye pain can be caused by several conditions and factors. These can include:

  • A bacterial or viral infection. Infecting organisms can be picked up on one’s hands, and then transferred to the eyes by rubbing them or placing a finger in or near the eyes.
  • A bacterial or viral infection that spreads from an area of one’s own body (such as the nose or sinuses) to the eyes.
  • Dirty contact lenses, poorly fitting contact lenses, or decorative contact lenses.
  • Allergic reactions to pollen or animals.
  • Irritation from cigarette smoke, air pollutants, chlorine in a swimming pool or other toxins.
  • Swelling or inflammation of the eye.
  • An increase in eye pressure. This can happen when the fluid in the eye is not balanced.

What are some common conditions and symptoms associated with eye pain?

Common conditions and symptoms linked to eye pain can include:

  • Cellulitis: Inflammation of tissue beneath the surface of the skin.
    • Preseptal: Affects the skin of the eyelid; found especially in young children.
    • Orbital: Affects the eye socket, causing the eye or eyelid to swell so that proper eye movement becomes difficult.
  • Conjunctivitis (pink eye): An infection or allergic reaction in the conjunctiva, the mucous membranes that line the inner eyelids and surface of the eyeballs.
    • Viral: Most common type of pink eye. Causes burning, red, watery eyes. Is highly contagious, particularly in school settings or crowds of people.
    • Bacterial: May be highly contagious. Causes sore, red eyes with sticky pus.
    • Allergic: Stems from an allergic reaction to an airborne allergen. Is not contagious. Causes itching, red, watery eyes.
  • Corneal abrasion: A scrape or scratch on the cornea.
  • Corneal laceration: A cut on the cornea, usually caused by a sharp object flying into the eye, or something hitting the eye with force. A laceration may tear partially or completely through the eyeball.
  • Corneal ulcer: An open sore on the cornea, caused by either infection, severe dry eye or other conditions.
  • Dry eye: Lack of moisture in the eyes, leading to the sensation of a foreign object in the eye, sensitivity to light, tearing up, and sometimes redness. Causes include wearing contact lenses, use of certain drugs (such as antihistamines, beta blockers, opiates, and tricyclic antidepressants), disease, injury or environmental factors (such as air conditioning).
  • Fuchs’ dystrophy: An eye disease in which cells in the upper layers of the cornea die off, causing fluid buildup, swollen and puffy eyes, and blurred vision.
  • Keratitis: An infection of the cornea (the clear dome-shaped front of the eye) resulting from injury or use of contact lenses. The infection can be caused by a fungus, bacteria, herpes virus, amoeba, or intense exposure to ultraviolet radiation (such as in snow blindness or welder’s arc eye). If left untreated, blindness can occur.
  • Glaucoma: Fluid buildup in the front of the eye, causing pressure that damages the optic nerve. This is the leading cause of blindness in people over 60 years of age.
    • Primary open-angle glaucoma: Fluid does not drain from the eye normally. This kind of glaucoma rarely causes eye pain.
    • Angle-closure glaucoma: The iris (the colored part of the eye) is very close to the drainage angle of the eye, potentially blocking proper drainage. Angle-closure glaucoma causes pain more often than other types of glaucoma.
  • Hyphema: Blood collects between the cornea and iris, usually due to an injury that causes a tear to the iris or pupil of the eye.
  • Microvascular cranial nerve palsy: Blood flow to the nerves that control eye movement is blocked. As a result, normal eye movement is not possible and double vision may result. Is found frequently in people with diabetes or high blood pressure.
  • Optic neuritis: Swelling of the optic nerve, the nerve that carries light signals to the back of the eye, and then to the brain for processing of visual images. Optic neuritis may be an autoimmune disease, and is often found in people who have had virus-based diseases such as mumps, measles, flu or multiple sclerosis.
  • Uveitis: Inflammation of the middle layer of the eyeball (the uvea). Damage to eye tissue can be serious, leading to blindness.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/03/2018.


  • Merck Manual Professional Version. Eye Pain. Accessed 5/14/2018.
  • American Academy of Ophthalmology. Pain in Eye. Accessed 5/14/2018.
  • Fiore DC, Pasernak AV, Radwan RM. Pain in the Quiet (Not Red) Eye. American Family Phyicians 2010 Jul 1;82(1):69-73. Accessed 5/14/2018.

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