In this article:
- Itchy eyes are often a symptom of an underlying problem, rather than a condition by themselves.
- Multiple factors can cause itchy eyes, allergic reactions being the most prevalent.
- Rubbing the eyes may provide momentary relief, but it is harmful to the eyes.
- A quick diagnosis and proper treatment are essential for relief from itchy eyes.
Everyone experiences itchiness in the eyes at least once in their lifetime. It often creates an urge to continuously rub the eyes and is a constant source of irritation and discomfort.
Medically known as ocular pruritus, itchy eyes are a frequent complaint at ophthalmologists’ offices. While the condition may appear to be an insignificant problem that is sometimes overlooked during a checkup, it can be a constant source of discomfort and anxiety to the affected individual.
Itchy eyes are often a result of irritation on the eyelids or sometimes in the clear membrane of the eye. Typically, they are a manifestation of an underlying condition and are accompanied by other symptoms, including light sensitivity, dryness, watery eyes, and swollen eyelids.
Causes of Itchy Eyes
The most frequent causes of itchy eyes include:
- Allergic reactions: Both seasonal and perennial allergies can cause problems in the eyes. Allergens such as dust mites in pillows, grasses, and blooming plants trigger an immune reaction in the body. This reaction stimulates the production of antibodies and the release of chemicals, such as histamines, which cause itchiness.
- Dermatological conditions: Problems such as atopic dermatitis, irritant contact dermatitis, and allergic contact dermatitis can affect the eyelids. (1)
- Ophthalmologic medications: An adverse reaction to drugs, such as antibiotics and prostaglandin analogs, and their components, such as preservatives, can also cause itchy eyes. (1)
Other causes that can lead to itchy eyes include:
- Dry eye syndrome, which refers to diminished moisture in the eye due to a lack of tear production (2)
- Infection as a result of improper use of contact lenses
- Common cold
- Utilization of expired cosmetics
- Improper eye hygiene
- Foreign particle or chemical in the eye
- Prolonged screen time, which can also result in blurred vision and headaches
- Medications such as antihistamines, antidepressants, birth control pills, and painkillers
- Blepharitis, or an infection that causes swelling of the eyelids (contact dermatoblepharitis)
- Meibomian gland dysfunction
- Giant papillary conjunctivitis
- Allergic conjunctivitis (nonallergic irritations may produce symptoms similar to allergic conjunctivitis, ocular itching is the differentiating factor that supports the diagnosis of allergic conjunctivitis) (3)
Itchy eyes are often more noticeable at the nighttime. Frequently rubbing your eyes or entering a highly polluted environment can aggravate the condition.
It is vital to manage the condition, as leaving it untreated can result in complications, and your eyes are more likely to get damaged.
Diagnosing the Condition
Because itchy eyes can be a sign of various medical conditions, a proper, timely diagnosis is necessary. For this, the doctor will observe your symptoms and take a thorough history, including:
- Onset, duration, and frequency of symptoms
- Aggravating factors
- Associated systemic complaints
Treating Itchy Eyes
The treatment method for itchy eyes depends on the underlying cause. Therefore, consult a doctor for the appropriate solution, especially if you have severe and recurrent problems.
1. Eye drops and medications
Saline eye drops can help provide relief from itchy eyes. However, it is important to choose the right OTC eye drop, as decongestant eye drops can aggravate the situation. You may ask your doctor for the OTC eye drop you can use.
Additionally, for allergy-caused itchiness, you may use antihistamine pills along with eye drops.
If the condition persists, consult your doctor for prescription eye drops suitable for your condition. The following medications may also be prescribed: (3)
- Mast-cell stabilizers
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
Rinsing your eyes with fresh water and wiping the lashes and eyelids with a wet washcloth help clear dirt and pollens from your eyes, thus providing relief. It is important to use room-temperature water since hot water can aggravate the condition.
3. Artificial tears
Periodic use of artificial tears can help clean the environmental allergens and other factors that cause the eye itching.
It is recommended to use non-preservative OTC products, as preservatives can cause sensitivity or allergy and therefore worsen the symptoms.
Tips and Remedies to Manage Itchy Eyes
Here are a few measures that can help minimize eye itchiness.
1. Use a cold compress
Applying a cold compress over your eyes for quick relief is a common home remedy and is often suggested by doctors as well. You can use a cold, moist washcloth over your eyes to control the itch caused by allergies.
Additionally, a cold compress hydrates the eyes, thus reducing any irritation caused by dryness. Cold compresses are also economical and easy to use. You may also try a warm compress. Just ensure that it is not too hot.
2. Avoid allergens
Allergic reactions are the most common cause of itchy eyes. Therefore, it is important to identify the factors that trigger your allergies and avoid contact with them.
These irritants may include pollen, wind, cigarette smoke, dry air, chemicals, dust, strong odors, and prolonged screen time. Blinking often can help lubricate your eyes and remove any allergens or irritants.
You can also take the following steps to limit exposure to allergens:
- Avoid going outside during periods with a high pollen count (generally midmorning or early evening).
- Use an air purifier indoors.
- Shut the windows of your car and home to prevent the entry of allergens. Use air conditioners.
- Utilize allergen-impermeable covers for your comforters, pillows, seat cushions, and mattresses to help avoid dust mites.
- Occasionally expose your bedding to sunlight and replace old bedding with new ones to control dust mites.
- Wear wraparound sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat to prevent pollen from entering your eyes.
3. Refrain from rubbing your eyes
Regardless of the cause of the itchiness, rubbing your eyes can aggravate the condition and even cause damage.
For example, rubbing an itchy eye that is caused by a foreign particle in the eye, such as makeup debris or an eyelash, can result in a scratched cornea.
4. Maintain proper hygiene when using contact lenses
When using contact lenses, it is vital to rinse them properly before using or storing to remove any allergens or irritants from the surface. Avoid prolonged use of contact lenses and clean them daily. Replace the solution in the container frequently.
Refrain from sharing your lenses or eye makeup with other people. Occasionally, switch to using your glasses for a few days to give rest to your eyes.
The following lifestyle changes can help prevent the development of itchy eyes:
- Avoid long stretches of work. Give rest to your eyes by following the 20-20-20 rule, which suggests looking at a distance of 20 feet for 20 seconds for every 20 minutes of eye-straining work.
- Wash your pillowcases and bedsheets using hot water and detergent to clean out the allergens.
- Protect your eyes from air coming out of hairdryers, air conditioners, fans, or car heaters.
- Mop your floors instead of sweeping to prevent stirring up the allergens.
- Restrict your pets from entering the bedroom to avoid pet dander.
- Avoid exposure to allergens.
- Refrain from burning candles as they emit soot and irritants in the air. Scented candles can irritate the eyes.
- Do not smoke cigarettes or tobacco. Additionally, avoid exposure to any kind of smoke.
- Use hypoallergenic products near the eyes.
- Consider vitamin A and omega-3 supplements as they can help improve eye health. A deficiency of vitamin A can cause dryness, (4) and omega-3 is known to aid tear production. (5) However, consult a doctor before using them.
- Take your medications regularly during allergy season.
- Refrain from touching your eyes and face.
- Wash and clean your hands frequently.
- Consult an ophthalmologist if the problem is persistent.
Itchy Eyes During Pregnancy
In some women, pregnancy may aggravate the symptoms of asthma and allergy. In other women, the symptoms may remain the same or even improve. Therefore, it is difficult to predict the influence of pregnancy on the immune system of a woman.
As it is important to be cautious about the medications pregnant women use, many options have been made available to them for controlling allergy symptoms.
It is vital to be proactive and consult your doctor for medicines if you are allergic, without waiting for the onset of the symptoms.
However, if you experience a seasonal allergy for the first time while pregnant, contact your doctor at the earliest for proper diagnosis. Timely management of the allergy is essential to reduce the risk of a sinus infection.
When to See a Doctor
Although itchy eyes are usually a mild problem, it is imperative to seek medical attention in the following cases:
- The problem lasts for more than a day or two
- The itchiness is occurring without the presence of known irritants
- It is accompanied by redness
- Vision is being affected
- Eye pain occurs
What you may ask your doctor:
- What steps can I take for relief?
- How long will the symptoms last?
- What home remedies can I safely use?
- Does eye itching have complications?
What your doctor may ask you:
- When did you first experience the symptoms?
- Have you identified any allergen or irritant that triggers the condition?
- How long does the itch last?