Itchy eyes are the worst. Not only do they get red, watery, and irritated, but you also have to (somehow) restrain yourself from rubbing and scratching them.
The reason? Your hands have likely been touching all sorts of germ-infested surfaces, like doorknobs and keyboards—and you really don’t want unwashed digits anywhere near your sensitive eyes.
To put an end to the agony, you’ve got to treat whatever’s causing the flare up in the first place. There are many things that can cause itchy eyes, from allergies to skincare products, so getting to the root of the problem is key for finding relief.
Here are the most common causes of itchy eyes, plus at-home treatments to help you feel better fast.
1. You suffer from seasonal allergies
If you notice that both of your eyes get irritated around the same time of year and you experience other common allergy symptoms, there’s a good chance you have seasonal allergies - called seasonal allergic rhinitis (though you should see your doctor for an official diagnosis).
According to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, seasonal allergies affects around 18% of people in Australia and New Zealand. Symptoms include sneezing, a runny or stuffy nose, a sore throat, and those dreaded red, itchy eyes.
Here’s why: When you have an allergic reaction to something like pollen, your immune system tries to “protect” you, explains Dr Megan McCarville. “Our bodies are designed to recognize things that are not supposed to be there and try to fight them off,” she says. “But when you’re exposed to something that you’re allergic to, the cells in your body go haywire and you have a list of different chemicals like histamine that lead to the kind of [allergy] symptoms people have.”
Indeed, histamine triggers that itchy feeling, so over-the-counter antihistamines, like Clarityne and Zyrtec, or even eye drops specifically made for allergy sufferers, can help provide relief. Staying indoors and closing the windows during pollen season can also give your eyes a break.
2. Or you have year-round allergies
If your eyes are itchy throughout the year (regardless of the season) and you have other allergy symptoms, you may have what is called a “perennial allergy.” These are often triggered by things like dust mites and animal dander (you can thank your cat for that).
Like seasonal allergies, you can potentially relieve symptoms with antihistamines, according to Dr McCarville. But again, it’s best to consult your doctor to figure out your triggers. They can do this by performing a variety of exams, like the skin prick test: This is where a physician seeps various allergens under your skin to see which elicits a reaction, thus potentially solving your itchy eye mystery.
3. An irritating substance is causing trouble
Sometimes it’s not an allergen but something else in the environment that’s bothering your eyes. “It’s pretty common for people to have eye irritation due to a variety of things like chlorine in a pool, cigarette smoke, or dust,” says Dr McCarville. “Sometimes that irritation can feel like itchiness.”
This can even occur if you’re particularly sensitive to strong fragrances, perfumes, or other airborne irritants. Luckily, these flare ups are short-term and usually get better on their own, especially when the irritant is gone, according to Dr McCarville.
In the meantime, you can soothe your eyes by applying a cool compress to them or lubricating them with artificial tears. Anti-redness drops may also provide some relief, but make sure you’re not using using them over the course of several days. Experts have found that overdoing it with anti-redness drops can increase your eyes’ dependence on them and may mask more serious eye conditions that need to be treated by a physician.
4. You have dry eyes
If you stare at a screen all day, you might have dry, itchy eyes. The reason: You forget to blink. Normally, humans blink an average of 15 times a minute, which keeps your eyes lubricated. But when you’re scrolling through social media or doing any sort of prolonged computer work, that blink rate reduces to five to seven times a minute, resulting in gritty-feeling eyes.
If you think digital eye strain is causing you itchiness, “just trying to take breaks is helpful,” says Dr McCarville. Experts recommend the 20-20-20 rule: every twenty minutes shift your eyes off your screen and look at something about 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. Artificial tears can also be useful in relieving dry eye symptoms.
“But if it doesn’t get better after two weeks, see a doctor,” says Dr. McCarville. “There are [medicated] drops that can make a difference.”
Certain medications (like allergy and heart meds) can also cause dry eyes, adds Dr McCarville. And sometimes dry eyes are a symptom of much more serious conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome, thyroid disease, and lupus. In these cases, it’s best to work with your physician to figure out a treatment plan.
5. Your contact lenses are dirty
As convenient as contact lenses are, they can be super agitating—especially if you don’t take care of them properly.
“Contact lenses that either haven’t been cleaned or have some foreign body on them can make your eyes feel itchy,” says Dr McCarville. So it’s important to follow your doctor’s instructions for cleaning and replacing them, whether that’s daily, weekly, or monthly.
If you don’t, lipid and protein deposits from tears, as well as debris, can build up on your contacts and irritate your eyes. This can lead to giant papillary conjunctivitis, a type of sever pink eye where the inner lining of the eyelid becomes inflamed with little bumps.
Even when you’re taking the very best care of your lenses, you can develop an allergy to your contacts or contact solution. If you think that’s the case, talk with your ophthalmologist to see if switching up the material of your lenses or your solution would solve the issue.
6. An eye infection may be lurking
If only one of your eyes is red or itchy, you most likely have an infection, which could be caused by bacteria or a virus, according to Dr McCarville.
It can be tough to tell what’s causing the infection on your own, “but bacteria are more likely to make your eye much redder, much puffier, and more goopy,” Dr McCarville says. “If a virus is causing it, you’ll often have other cold-like symptoms.” In other words, with a viral infection, you might also have a runny nose or a sore throat.
Both bacterial and viral infections tend to get better on their own. “If [the infection] is relatively mild, and you’re not having any trouble seeing, just managing symptoms will help your eye feel better,” says Dr McCarville. “That would be something like putting a warm compress on it to help get rid of any crusting.”
If, however, you notice that there’s severe swelling around the eye or there’s a ton of discharge, you’ll want your doctor to take a look, she adds. They can prescribe you specific medication like antibiotics (in the case of a bacterial infection) or steroid drops.
In the meantime, avoid touching your eyes and sharing face towels, pillowcases, and makeup since these kinds of infection are highly contagious.
7. Your makeup or skincare products could be causing irritation
Sometimes the problem isn’t the eye itself but rather the skin around it, says. Dr McCarville. This skin can be particularly sensitive to substances it doesn’t like such as ingredients in makeup, skincare products, and cleaning products. These substances may lead to an uncomfortable rash called contact dermatitis, a form of eczema that is caused by skin contact with either an allergen or a specific irritant.
If you think a product you regularly use is causing your eyelids to flare up, give it a break for a few days to see if things improve. These types of rashes tend to go away when your skin is no longer in contact with the irritant. Once the rash is gone, you can pinpoint the specific product that is causing the problem by re-introducing them one-by-one.
To curb the itch, doctors typically recommend mild forms of topical steroids (like 0.5 to 1% hydrocortisone) since stronger ones can thin the already-delicate eyelid skin. If your rash doesn’t do away within a few days, stop use and consult a dermatologist who can help you get to the root of the issue.
8. You might have blepharitis
Blepharitis is a skin condition that usually affects both eyelids. It develops when the oil glands at the base of your eyelashes become clogged.
“It can cause itching for a few reasons,” explains Dr McCarville. “One is that the oil glands are part of what helps keep your eyes moist, and the other is because of skin inflammation.”
While the cause of blepharitis isn’t clear, it often manifests in conjunction with other skin conditions like seborrheic dermatitis and rosacea. In many cases, washing your eyes and using a warm compress can ease your symptoms. But if that doesn’t help, go see your doc. There are medications that can help.
9. A stye could be causing issues
If you’ve got a red, painful, and itchy bump on your eyelid that kind of looks like a pimple, you probably have a stye, which tends to pop up when the oil glands get a bacterial infection.
Luckily, these often go away on their own within a couple of days. Again, the warm compress is your friend here—experts recommend applying it several times a day for five to 10 minutes. If it doesn’t clear up within 48 hours or so, contact your primary care physician.
❗When to seek urgent care for itchy eyes
If your itchy eyes don’t feel better after a few days of home care, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor, says Dr McCarville. If your doc suspects you have allergies or a more serious skin issue, they may refer you to a specialist such as an allergist or a dermatologist.
That said, if you’re also experiencing any of the following, see a doctor immediately, says Dr McCarville:
- A loss of vision
- Pain when you move your eye(s)
- Sensitivity to light
These symptoms are rare, but they are major red flags that may indicate an infection or eye pressure issue that can cause severe vision damage. If your doctor is booked for the day, don’t hesitate to head over to urgent care. Your eyes will thank you.