There’s more than meets the (red) eye

by Anisa Patail, O.D.

February is here, and Valentine’s Day is around the corner! We see red hearts everywhere as a sign for the holiday, but let’s talk about what red eyes are a sign for. There are several conditions that can cause this very common finding. Depending on the symptoms you’re experiencing, and the amount/severity of inflammatory signs in the eye, a doctor can diagnose the cause for your red eye. 

Most commonly, red eyes are caused by a condition called conjunctivitis. There are three main types of conjunctivitis: bacterial, allergic, and viral. Each of these can lead to irritation in the eyes including itching, burning, and discharge. The type of discharge experienced is key to determining the type of conjunctivitis: white/yellow vs thick/clear vs stringy/clear. Not all conjunctivitis is treated the same either. Most of the time, an antibiotic or steroid/antibiotic combination drop may be required. Sometimes, no drop is needed and the conjunctivitis will resolve on its own within a few weeks. Allergic conjunctivitis can be cleared with over-the-counter medications, although prescription drops may be required for severe cases.  

A pinguecula is a very common, benign bump on the white part of the eye, the conjunctiva. Sometimes the pinguecula can become inflamed and turn red, called pingueculitis. The pinguecula can grow over to the clear part of the eye, at which point it’s called a pterygium, and almost always leads to redness in the eye. Most of the time, the pinguecula and pterygium do not cause irritation, but sometimes it can lead to a foreign body sensation, at which point artificial tears are recommended.

Conditions that affect the lids and the lashes, called blepharitis, can also cause red eyes, as well as itching, burning, and dry eyes. This can be due to bacteria buildup on the lashes, mites on the lashes, and capped oil glands. The most effective treatment is to clean the lids and lashes with lid scrubs, such as Ocusoft, and to use warm compresses on the eyes. In severe cases of blepharitis, oral antibiotics may be necessary, as well as prescription eye drops. 

Trauma to the eye is another very common cause for red eyes. A foreign body in the eye such as a piece of metal, or even an eyelash in the eye can cause irritation and redness until removed. When a foreign body gets in the eye, it can also cause a scratch on the cornea (the clear part of the eye) or conjunctiva, which is called an abrasion. This may require artificial tears, or antibiotic drops to heal. 

Oftentimes, a red eye is simply that: a red bloodshot eye with no symptoms. This is due to a burst blood vessel in the conjunctiva called a subconjunctival hemorrhage. This resolves on its own in a few weeks. It is most commonly caused by physical straining: excessive coughing/sneezing, constipation, heavy lifting, etc. If you experience this often, specific blood work may be necessary to rule out certain systemic conditions and bleeding disorders.

Other conditions that cause red eyes include keratitis, scleritis, episcleritis, dry eyes, and uveitis. So, before you go to your nearest drug store and pick up a bottle of “red eye relief” eye drops, make sure to see a doctor to be properly diagnosed for your red eye. Our doctors can help you with red eyes or any other eye care issues. To learn more or to schedule an appointment call us at 800-282-3937 or visit us online at EYESFL.COM

Bio: Anisa Patail, O.D. is a Board-Certified Optometrist who practices at the Haines City location for Eye Specialists of Mid-Florida. She is currently accepting new patients. 

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