Eye Irritation

Eye irritation is a term for eye discomfort, itchiness or dryness. It has a variety of causes, ranging from mild to serious. Eye irritation usually gets better quickly with at-home remedies and over-the-counter eye drops.


What is eye irritation?

You’ve likely experienced eye irritation at some point in your life. It can cause feelings of dryness, grittiness or itchiness. You may feel like you have something in your eye that you can’t get out. Or you may have redness or swelling along with eye irritation.

Eye irritation usually improves with some home remedies or over-the-counter medications. Less commonly, it can be a symptom of an underlying medical condition. See a healthcare provider if your eye bothers you for more than a few days and home remedies don’t help. Your provider may offer additional treatments to help you find relief.

What does eye irritation feel like?

Eye irritation generally means that your eye or the surrounding area is uncomfortable. It’s often accompanied by symptoms such as:

What are the possible complications of eye irritation?

Eye irritation usually doesn’t lead to complications. However, if you get a foreign object in your eye, it can cause damage. A small piece of dirt, sand or glass could scratch your cornea, the thin transparent layer of tissue that covers your eye.

A mild cornea scratch, called a corneal abrasion, usually resolves quickly. Your healthcare provider may give you prescription eye drops to relieve pain as the scratch heals.


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Possible Causes

What are the most common causes of eye irritation?

They’re several possible causes of eye irritation, many of which have over-the-counter (OTC) solutions. The most common causes of eye irritation include:

  • Allergies: Many people deal with eye allergies, or sensitivities to specific substances called allergens. Pollen, pet dander, dust and mold are common allergens.
  • Blocked tear ducts: Your tears typically drain through small openings at the corner of your eye called tear ducts. A blocked tear duct interferes with tear drainage, causing eye irritation, crusting or pain.
  • Contact lenses: Contact lenses that haven’t been cleaned properly may contain foreign debris that causes discomfort, possibly leading to an infection. Wearing your contacts overnight may lead to eye sores called corneal ulcers.
  • Digital eye strain: Staring at a computer screen, tablet or smartphone for long periods can irritate or strain your eyes. You may also have headaches, neck pain or back pain.
  • Environmental irritants: Tobacco smoke, smog, chlorinated pool water and even dry weather can all irritate your eyes. Environmental irritants may also cause feelings of grittiness or graininess in your eyes.
  • Foreign objects: Sometimes, the sensation that something is “stuck” in your eye is actually true. Anything from an eyelash to dirt particles can get into your eye and lead to irritation.
  • Infections: Several infections, including bacterial, fungal or viral infections, can cause eye discomfort. Pink eye (conjunctivitis) is one of the most common types of eye infection.
  • Styes: These small, painful growths may form around or on your eyelids. They usually look like pus-filled pimples and may also cause eye swelling.

Can eyelash extensions cause eye irritation?

Yes. Any foreign object on or around your eyes can cause irritation and discomfort. Eyelash extensions may even damage your eyes or cause an allergic reaction.

What medical conditions cause eye irritation?

Underlying medical conditions sometimes cause eye irritation, including:

  • Blepharitis: Recurring inflammation in your eyelids.
  • Cluster headaches: A type of headache disorder that causes frequent, intense head pain, possibly leading to eye tearing, redness or swelling.
  • Lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus): An autoimmune disease that can cause eye problems such as excess watering, burning or gritty sensations.
  • Multiple sclerosis: An autoimmune disease that can cause blurry or decreased vision.
  • Ocular rosacea: A chronic skin condition that can cause eye dryness, itchiness or redness if it affects your eyelids.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: A chronic inflammatory condition that can lead to inflammation in the white part of your eye (sclera).
  • Sjögren’s syndrome: An autoimmune disease that causes decreased tear production, leading to eye dryness, itchiness or redness.
  • Trichiasis: Eyelashes that grow in an atypical direction, causing eye irritation when you blink.

Care and Treatment

What can I do at home to treat eye irritation?

Several at-home remedies can lessen eye irritation and help you find relief. You may:

  • Apply warm compresses to your affected eye.
  • Rinse your eye out with water.
  • Take over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines or allergy medications to soothe itchy eyes.
  • Use OTC artificial tear drops to lubricate dry eyes.

What are the medical treatments for eye irritation?

Depending on the root cause of eye irritation, you may need additional medical treatments. See a healthcare provider if home remedies don’t work or if you have eye irritation for longer than one to two days.

A healthcare provider may recommend:

  • Antibiotics to treat a bacterial eye infection.
  • Eyelid scrubs to treat blepharitis or dry eye.
  • Prescription eye drops for allergies or dry eye.

You may need additional treatments for underlying medical conditions. Your healthcare provider will offer a personalized treatment plan based on your needs and symptoms.


How long does it take for an irritated eye to heal?

Minor eye irritation usually goes away in a day or two. More serious infections may cause eye irritation lasting one to two weeks. See your healthcare provider if your eye irritation lasts longer than 48 hours, even if it’s mild.

How can I prevent eye irritation?

You can keep your eyes healthy and lower your risk of eye irritation with a few simple practices, including:

  • Avoiding sharing makeup or skin care products with others.
  • Checking expiration dates on makeup and skin care products and replacing them regularly.
  • Limiting your screen time as much as possible and taking frequent breaks when working at a computer.
  • Protecting your eyes by wearing wraparound sunglasses in environments with known irritants or allergens.
  • Staying indoors when air quality is poor, such as when there’s excess pollen or wildfire smoke in the air.
  • Using a humidifier if the air in your home is dry.
  • Washing your hands often, especially before and after putting in contact lenses.

When to Call the Doctor

When should a doctor or healthcare provider treat eye irritation?

See a healthcare provider if eye irritation is severe and sudden or lasts longer than a few days. You should also see one right away if you have symptoms such as:

  • Discharge or “goop” in your eye, especially if it’s green or yellow.
  • Sensitivity to light.
  • Severe pain.
  • Sudden vision loss.

You should also see a healthcare provider immediately if you’ve sustained an eye injury, such as:

  • Getting hit in your eye.
  • Splashing chemicals in your eye.
  • Sustaining an eye cut or puncture.

What are the signs of an eye infection?

Eye infections may cause eye irritation along with:

  • A sensation that something is in your eye.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Discharge that’s yellow or green.
  • Eye pain.
  • Fever.
  • Redness in your eyelids or eyes.

See a healthcare provider if you have any signs of an eye infection. You may need prescription medications to treat the infection.

Additional Common Questions

Can the 20-20-20 rule prevent eye irritation?

Digital eye strain is a major cause of eye irritation in today’s online society. If you deal with eye strain from looking at a screen, your healthcare provider may recommend following the 20-20-20 rule. During prolonged periods of screen time, you should look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds, repeating every 20 minutes. The 20-20-20 rule can help decrease eye strain and irritation.

Can blue light-blocking glasses prevent eye irritation?

No, blue light-blocking glasses don’t prevent eye irritation or digital eye strain. Digital eye strain isn’t related to blue light. Instead, it usually develops when your eyes focus on a close object for long periods. You also tend to blink less often when staring at a screen, which can lead to dryness and discomfort.

Blue light-blocking glasses can prevent blue light from interfering with your body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that helps you sleep. So, you may want blue light-blocking glasses if you have difficulty sleeping. Setting your devices to night mode and decreasing screen time before bed also can help you sleep better.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Eye irritation is the feeling that your eye is bothering you. You’ve probably experienced this sensation at some point — everything from a stray eyelash to cigarette smoke can cause eye irritation. Home remedies and over-the-counter medications usually relieve eye irritation. See your healthcare provider if eye irritation lasts longer than several days or if you have symptoms of an infection.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/13/2023.

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