What is eye pain?
Eye pain can be sharp, aching or throbbing, and can affect one or both eyes. Eye pain is more serious than the simple irritation one feels from a piece of dirt or small foreign object in the eye. In such cases, discomfort disappears once the foreign object is removed. The type of eye pain discussed here is more intense and longer-lasting, and can be accompanied by other symptoms. Some eye pain may be a sign of an underlying health problem or injury, and should be brought to the attention of a doctor as soon as possible.
Who is more likely to experience eye pain?
The symptom of eye pain is not associated with any particular group of people. Eye pain due to injuries can happen to anyone, particularly when protective eyewear is not used during activities that put the eyes at risk.
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.
Care and Treatment
How is eye pain treated?
Generally, eye pain is first treated by determining the cause of the pain and then treating that cause. Pain medicines are typically not needed.
For infectious conditions:
- Eye drops that reduce inflammation (corticosteroids) or that widen the pupil of the eye in order to reduce pain and swelling.
- Antibiotic, antifungal or antiviral eye drops.
- Oral non-narcotic medications to reduce pain or allergy symptoms.
- Use a clean towel or tissue every time when wiping the face or eyes.
- Wash hands frequently, particularly after coughing, sneezing or using the toilet.
- Keep hands and fingers out of the eyes.
- Avoid the use of contact lenses when the eyes are infected.
- Do not use makeup when the eyes are infected.
In cases of eye injury:
- Seek medical care as soon as possible.
- Gently place a shield over the eye until medical attention can be received. A shield can be made from something as simple as the bottom of a paper cup that has been cut out and taped over the eye.
- Unless there has been a chemical injury, do not rinse with water.
- Do not try to remove an object stuck in the eye.
- Do not rub or apply pressure to the eye.
- If the eye is bleeding, discuss with the eye doctor whether to avoid the use of aspirin or anti-inflammatory drugs, as these may thin the blood and make it more difficult to control bleeding.
- Lubricating eye drops.
- Surgical treatments can replace a damaged or scarred cornea with transplanted cells or an entire cornea. Surgery can also help restore the function of damaged eye muscles or remove a foreign object from the eye.
- Laser surgery can improve drainage in the eye in cases of glaucoma.
- Prism glasses or the use of eye patches may be used to assist in recovery from certain conditions such as microvascular cranial nerve palsy.
When to Call the Doctor
When should I call a doctor?
Any case of eye pain should be taken seriously. However, eye pain along with any of the following symptoms is of great concern:
- A visual sensation of halos around lights
- A buildup of fluid pressure behind the cornea
- Signs of bodily infection (such as fever or chills)
- Blurred vision
- Bulging eyeballs
- Inability to move the eyes through their normal range
- Merck Manual Professional Version. Eye Pain. (https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/eye-disorders/symptoms-of-ophthalmologic-disorders/eye-pain) Accessed 11/8/2021.
- American Academy of Ophthalmology. Pain in Eye. (https://www.aao.org/eye-health/symptoms/pain-in-eye-3) Accessed 11/8/2021.
- Fiore DC, Pasernak AV, Radwan RM. Pain in the Quiet (Not Red) Eye. (https://www.aafp.org/afp/2010/0701/p69.html) American Family Phyicians 2010 Jul 1;82(1):69-73. Accessed 11/8/2021.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/03/2018.