Eye Pain: Causes, Treatment, and When to See a Healthcare Provider

Lots of different health conditions can cause eye pain. Some of them are serious, like narrow-angle glaucoma and optic neuritis. Others are less so, like conjunctivitis, styes, or dry eyes.

The kind of pain you’re feeling (burning, sharp, aching, etc.) and any additional symptoms you have (sensitivity to light, headache, etc.) can help your healthcare provider narrow down the cause.

Your healthcare provider may prescribe eye drops or self-care treatments. In some situations, you may need to see an eye doctor.

This article examines some common causes of eye pain. It also explains how they’re diagnosed and treated.

eye pain causes
eye pain causes

Verywell / Alexandra Gordon

Causes

Your eye sits in a bony socket called the orbit. The eye contains several complex parts, including:

  • The sclera (the white part)
  • Iris (the colored part of your eye)
  • Pupil (black spot in the middle)
  • Cornea (the clear outer layer of the eye)

Any condition that affects these parts can cause pain. Pain can also come from conditions that affect the optic nerve.

Common Causes

Eye pain can be distracting or debilitating. The upside is that most of the common causes can be cured or managed well. Below are some of the more common causes. They are usually not serious.

Stye

A stye, or a hordeolum, is a red, tender bump that looks like a pimple. It sits on or inside the eyelid. Styes often happen when an oil gland on the eyelid is infected. The main symptoms are:

  • Pain that gets worse over a few days
  • Tearing
  • Eyelid swelling

Corneal Abrasion

A corneal abrasion is a scratch on the surface of the cornea. That’s the clear, dome-like structure on the front part of the eye. Corneal abrasions may occur on their own or as a part of a larger injury or trauma. A torn contact lens could scratch your cornea. So could getting something (a foreign body) in your eye.

The eye pain from a corneal abrasion can be severe. You might not be able to read, drive, go to work, or even sleep. Besides pain, people often report sensitivity to light.

Dry Eye Syndrome

The cornea is filled with nerves that give the eye and brain feedback. Sometimes, the amount of tears your eye makes can decrease. It’s also possible for your tears to evaporate more quickly than normal.

When the surface of the eye dries out, your eyes can get irritated. You might feel a gritty, burning, or sharp sensation. In addition to discomfort, you may notice red eyes and sensitivity to light.

Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye)

Conjunctivitis is inflammation of the conjunctiva. That’s a thin membrane that lines the outside of your eyeball and the inside of your eyelid. Allergies and infections are the most common culprits.

Conjunctivitis causes burning pain or soreness in the eye. When the condition is caused by a virus or an allergy, there’s often a watery fluid discharge. If there’s a sticky, pus-filled discharge, the problem is probably caused by bacteria. Allergic conjunctivitis also causes itchy eyes and puffy eyelids.

Blepharitis

Blepharitis is inflammation of the eyelash follicles. It’s usually caused by too much bacteria at the base of the eyelashes. Common symptoms include:

  • Swollen, itchy, and irritated eyelids
  • Problems with your eyelashes
  • Light sensitivity
  • Dandruff-like flakes on the eyelids or eyelashes
  • A feeling that there’s something in your eye

Symptoms tend to be worse when you first wake up in the morning.

Tear Duct Infection

Dacryocystitis is an infection in the tear drainage system. It often occurs when bacteria clog up the tear duct. The infection causes pain, redness, and inflammation near the inner corner of the eye.

Extra tears, pus, or other types of discharge might drain from your eye. In more severe cases, you might also have a fever.

Sinus Headache

A sinus headache comes from inflammation or infection in one or more of your sinuses. Sinuses are cavities behind your nose, between your eyes, and beneath your cheekbones and lower forehead. If you have a sinus infection, you might also notice:

  • Pain or pressure behind the eyeballs
  • Nasal discharge
  • Ear pain
  • Tooth pain

Less Common Causes

These conditions aren’t very common. It’s important to know about them because some require urgent or emergency care.

Acute Angle-Closure Glaucoma

Most cases of glaucoma create no symptoms at all. However, with acute angle-closure glaucoma, the iris suddenly blocks the area where the cornea and iris meet. That means fluid can’t drain out of the eyeball. If the drainage angle is blocked, pressure builds up rapidly within the eye. It causes sudden, intense eye pain and swelling.

Other symptoms include eye redness, blurred vision, and seeing halos and rainbows around lights. Acute angle-closure glaucoma is a medical emergency. To save your vision, it’s vital that you get treatment right away.

Keratitis

Keratitis, also known as a corneal ulcer, refers to inflammation of your cornea. Keratitis is painful. It can also cause redness and blurry vision.

Bacterial, viral, fungal, or parasitic infections can cause keratitis. The condition can also happen if you scratch your eye or wear contacts too long. If you think you may have keratitis, don’t wait to get medical care. Untreated keratitis can lead to blindness.

Scleritis

Scleritis simply means inflammation of the sclera, the white part of your eye. Often, the underlying cause is an autoimmune disease, where the body attacks its own tissues.

The pain of scleritis is severe. It feels as though it’s coming from deep inside your eye. Other symptoms of this condition may include:

  • Swelling
  • Redness of the sclera
  • Blurry vision
  • Partial or complete loss of vision
  • Tearing
  • Extreme sensitivity to light

Hyphema

A hyphema is when blood collects between the cornea and the iris at the front of the eye. The blood covers all or part of the iris and pupil. Blurry vision and light sensitivity may also be present.

It’s important to not confuse a hyphema with a subconjunctival hemorrhage (a broken blood vessel). With a broken blood vessel, blood appears in the white of the eye but is not painful.

Optic Neuritis

Optic neuritis is swelling of the optic nerve. That’s the nerve that sends messages from the eye to the brain. Although optic neuritis can occur from several causes, it is most commonly linked to multiple sclerosis. This condition causes symptoms like these:

  • Pain when you move your eyes
  • Blurry vision
  • Loss of color vision (

    dyschromatopsia

    )

  • Blind spot (

    scotoma

    )

Pain occurs with eye movement because the optic nerve is like a cable that connects the eye to the brain. As the eye moves back and forth, the inflamed nerve does, too.

Anterior Uveitis

Anterior uveitis is an inflammation of the fluid-filled space at the front of the eye. The inflammation comes from an infection, autoimmune disease, or eye injury. The symptoms are:

  • Aching eye pain
  • Intense light sensitivity
  • Blurry vision

Orbital Cellulitis

Orbital cellulitis is a serious infection of the muscles and fat that surround the eye. With this condition, you’re likely to have symptoms like these:

  • Pain when you move your eye
  • Eyelid swelling
  • Eyelid drooping
  • Fever

Orbital cellulitis is more common in children. It often develops from a bacterial sinus infection. Left untreated, it can lead to vision loss. The infection can also spread to the brain, which is why it is vital to get medical care early if you have these symptoms.

Cluster Headache

A cluster headache is a rare, extremely painful headache disorder more common in men.

The condition causes symptoms like these:

  • Sharp, burning, or piercing pain near or above one eye or temple
  • Eyelid swelling or drooping
  • Redness or tearing of the eye

Recap

Eye pain can be caused by an injury, infection, or illness. Dry eye syndrome, conjunctivitis, blepharitis, corneal abrasion, glaucoma, sinus or cluster headaches, and styes all cause eye pain. 

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Eye pain can come from something simple or something very serious. This is why it’s important to see your healthcare provider if your eye pain continues for more than a couple of hours.

If you are experiencing eye pain with vision loss or if you’ve had trauma to the eye, do not wait—seek medical care immediately.

Diagnosis

To pinpoint the cause, your healthcare provider will examine your eye and talk with you about your medical history. You might also need imaging and blood tests.

Medical History

A medical history is the first step in finding the cause of your eye pain. Your healthcare provider may ask questions like these:

  • Has your vision changed?
  • Have you had any trauma to your eye?
  • Are you having other symptoms like a headache, sensitivity to light, fever, or discharge from your nose or eyes?
  • Do you wear contact lenses? If so, your healthcare provider may inquire about your wearing schedule, overnight wear habits, and hygiene regimen.
  • Do you feel like there is a foreign body in your eye?
  • Do you have any other health conditions?

Eye Exam

Your healthcare provider will examine your eye. You may need one or more tests, depending on which conditions you could have.

Some examples of eye tests include:

  • Visual acuity test, which checks your distance and up-close vision
  • Fluorescein

    staining, which uses dye to reveal a corneal abrasion

  • Tonometry eye pressure test, which checks for glaucoma
  • Retinal exam for uveitis and optic neuritis
  • Slit lamp exam for uveitis and scleritis

Imaging

Imaging tests can confirm a few eye pain diagnoses. For example, a computed tomography (CT) scan can show orbital cellulitis. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can detect optic neuritis.

Certain imaging tests can be used to test for other health conditions, such as anterior uveitis or scleritis.

Blood Tests

Blood tests are usually not needed to diagnose the cause of eye pain unless your doctor thinks you may have an illness. However, you may need blood cultures and a complete blood count (CBC) to diagnose orbital cellulitis.

Recap

To arrive at a reliable diagnosis, your healthcare provider needs to know your medical history. You’ll need to be able to describe what kind of pain you have and where it’s located. You may also need an eye exam, vision tests, imaging tests, or blood work to be sure of your condition.

Treatment

Treatment depends on what exactly is causing the eye pain. In some cases, it can be relieved in a short office visit with your primary care physician or healthcare provider. In other cases, you may need to see an ophthalmologist.

Self-Care Strategies

Sometimes you can’t get to the healthcare provider’s office right away. You can try the following self-care strategies to reduce pain until your appointment. Your healthcare provider may also recommend these treatments once serious eye conditions are ruled out.

For a Stye

Apply a warm, wet compress to the eye for 10 minutes, three to four times a day. The compress may coax the stye into draining on its own. Do not squeeze or pop the stye because that can spread the infection.

For Dry Eyes

Try these strategies:

  • Run a humidifier in your bedroom or home office.
  • Minimize exposure to air conditioning or heating.
  • Wear glasses with shields on the sides if you’re going to be in windy or dry places.

For a Foreign Body

Try wearing an eye patch or taping the eyelid shut with medical tape until you see your healthcare provider. By keeping yourself from blinking, you may be able to prevent more scratches. Do not tape the eye shut for more than a few hours, though, as bacteria can flourish in closed environments.

For Viral or Allergic Conjunctivitis

Place a cool, wet compress on your eye to ease the discomfort.

For Blepharitis

Focus on eyelid hygiene to manage flares and symptoms. To keep eyelids clean and loosen crusts, gently press a clean, warm compress over your eyes for 10 minutes two to four times a day.

Medications

Your healthcare provider may prescribe medication to treat the problem.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) eye drops can soothe your eye pain. These drops are usually not prescribed for long periods because they can cause cornea problems.

Allergy eye drops, either over-the-counter or prescription, can relieve the redness, itchiness, and puffiness of allergic conjunctivitis.

Artificial tears are used to soothe dry eyes. You can find them in liquid, gel, or ointment formulas. When mildly “chilled” or placed in the refrigerator for an hour, they can be extra-soothing.

Topical cyclosporine or lifitegrast are prescription medications for severely dry eyes.

Antibiotic eye drops are often prescribed for bacterial conjunctivitis and bacterial keratitis. They are sometimes prescribed for blepharitis as well.

Glaucoma eye drops lower the pressure in your eye. For acute angle-closure glaucoma, eye drops along with an oral or intravenous (IV) medication called acetazolamide will reduce the pressure immediately.

Oral antibiotics treat a few different eye pain diagnoses, such as:

  • A stye that does not resolve on its own or becomes infected
  • A bacterial sinus infection
  • Blepharitis that does not respond to eyedrops or ointments

Intravenous antibiotics, given through your vein, are used to treat orbital cellulitis.

Steroid eye drops (or pills) are used to treat more serious eye pain diagnoses, like anterior uveitis.

High-dose corticosteroids, given as a pill or a shot, treat optic neuritis.

Surgery

Some conditions require surgery. Your surgeon may need to drain the fluid from the eye, transplant a cornea, or open the tear duct pathway.

Prevention

Not all eye pain diagnoses can be prevented. Here are some strategies you can use to prevent eye pain:

To prevent styes and conjunctivitis, wash your hands often, especially before using eye makeup or putting in contact lenses. It’s also a good idea to take off your eye makeup every night using a clean cloth.

Never share eye drops with anyone or touch the tip of a dropper to your eye. Doing so can spread bacteria.

To prevent corneal abrasions, wear protective eyewear if you are doing anything that risks eye injury (e.g., cutting wood or metal). Clean your contact lenses well and do not use them for longer than advised.

Summary

Eye pain can be the result of injury, infection, or another health condition. Minor scratches, dryness, or styes may not need immediate medical care. But if you’re also having symptoms like pressure, swelling, drainage, fever, or vision problems, talk to a healthcare provider sooner rather than later. Some eye conditions can cause permanent blindness if they’re left untreated.

When you do seek treatment, be prepared to talk about your medical history. You may also need other tests to know for sure what’s going on.

Eye pain can often be resolved with warm, wet compresses or over-the-counter eyedrops for allergies or pain relief. In some cases, prescription eyedrops, corticosteroids, or antibiotics might be needed. And you may need surgery for more serious conditions.

When it comes to your eyes, prevention and protection are best. Wear protective eye gear and keep everything that comes near your eyes clean and clear of bacteria.

A Word From Verywell

Getting to the bottom of your eye pain may be simple–or it could be more complicated, especially if you’re dealing with a serious condition. Seek a healthcare provider’s advice if you have eye pain (even if it’s after hours or on the weekend). Your condition could be severe and require immediate treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When should I be concerned about eye pain?

    If you have both pain and vision loss, you’ve had eye trauma, or you have pain for several hours, you should see a doctor right away. 

  • What kind of headache is behind one eye?

    Cluster headaches and ocular migraines can cause eye pain. A cluster headache causes intense pain in or around the eye socket. It lasts 15 minutes to an hour and recurs daily for several weeks. 

    Ocular migraines can cause temporary vision loss. It’s not unusual to have more than one type of migraine. See your healthcare provider if you experience a loss of vision, even if you are used to having migraines.

  • Does glaucoma make your eyes hurt?

    Most types of glaucoma do not cause eye pain. However, acute angle-closure glaucoma can cause pressure and pain in your eye. Other symptoms include red eyes and seeing halos or rainbows around lights. If you experience these symptoms, see your healthcare provider right away. 

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