December 4, 2019

Help! What’s the Deal with My Red, Itchy Eyes?

Photo of a woman rubbing her eyes

Healthy eyes are so often taken for granted. It’s not until they start causing trouble that we even have to give them a second thought.

When you or your child wakes up with one or two red, itchy eyes, the conversation jumps right to eye allergies vs. pink eye. How can you tell the difference?

Eye allergies, also called allergic conjunctivitis, are a non-contagious condition that results from the eyes coming into contact with common allergens such as dust, pollen, mold, and pet dander. The reaction usually (but not always) occurs in both eyes and can include symptoms such as:

  • Red or pink color
  • Itching
  • Watering
  • Burning
  • Swelling

These symptoms may be accompanied by typical allergy issues like sneezing, coughing, runny nose, etc. If you experience these eye and respiratory symptoms and it’s a time of year that you often suffer from seasonal allergies, eye allergies could very well be the culprit. And if you have year-round allergies like pet dander and dust, pay attention to what you’ve been up to. If you recently dusted a ceiling fan and had dust rain down on you, or if you spent some quality time brushing your pets, eye allergies may be the logical answer.

The best part about an eye allergy diagnosis is that, unlike bacterial and viral pink eye, you cannot spread it to anyone else. Your allergist can recommend some over-the-counter drops, or there are also prescription drops available to treat eye allergies. If any of your allergy symptoms remain unbearable even after treatment, you may want to discuss immunotherapy with your allergist as a long-term solution.

Allergen avoidance is your best bet for preventing eye allergies from ever developing. Try to keep hands clean and refrain from touching your eyes whenever possible. If you know what allergens irritate your system, put in some effort to minimize them in the home. This may mean keeping pets out of sleeping spaces, finding the right allergy-friendly air filter, closing windows when pollen is at its worst, and washing bedding in hot water often.

If symptoms don’t line up with an eye allergy, you could have viral or bacterial pink eye (conjunctivitis). Both of these are highly contagious, and kids need to be kept home from daycare or school if they have either one. These conditions can occur in one or both eyes.

Viral pink eye (the most common type) can have itching, watering, burning, and redness just like eye allergies. It typically develops when you have a cold and can involve a swollen lymph node. Mild eye pain might indicate that it’s not allergy-related. Viral pink eye has to run its course, which usually takes four to seven days. There’s no treatment other than trying to keep comfortable with cold or warm compresses (keep those washcloths clean!).

Bacterial pink eye also features itching, burning, and redness, but the eye discharge is thick and yellow or green as opposed to watery. People often wake up with their eyes matted shut from the discharge. Bacterial pink eye can cause mild pain and even a gritty feeling, like there’s sand in your eye. Antibiotic eye drops or ointment typically clear up this type of pink eye within a couple of days.

Practicing good hygiene is the best defense against spreading pink eye. Do not touch or rub your eyes, wash hands frequently, and change pillow cases more often than usual. It’s a good idea not to wear contacts while you have pink eye. If you wear disposable contact lenses, be sure to ditch the ones you wore when you contracted pink eye. If yours are not disposable, they must be thoroughly disinfected before you put them back in your eyes. Once the pink eye clears up, replace all of your eye makeup to avoid re-infection.

Pink eye is typically not serious and will resolve without much effort. However, if you have a newborn with pink eye symptoms or experience intense eye pain, light sensitivity, disturbed vision, or extreme redness, see a doctor immediately.