Pain in your eye, also called, ophthalmalgia, is physical discomfort caused by dryness on the surface of your eyeball, a foreign object in your eye, or a medical condition that’s affecting your vision.
The pain can be slight or severe, causing you to rub your eyes, squint, blink more quickly, or feel like you need to keep your eyes shut.
Your eye has a complicated anatomy. The cornea is a protective layer that covers the mechanism that allows you to see. Next to your cornea is the conjunctiva, a clear mucous membrane that lines the outside of your eyeball.
The cornea covers your iris, the colored part of your eye that controls how much light is let into the black part of your eye, called your pupil. Surrounding the iris and pupil is a white area called the sclera.
The lens focuses light on the retina. The retina triggers nerve impulses, and the optic nerve brings the image your eye is witnessing to your brain. Your eyes are also surrounded by muscles which move your eyeball in different directions.
Causes of pain in eyes
Blepharitis is a condition that causes your eyelids to become swollen and red. It also causes itching and pain. Blepharitis happens when the oil glands at the base of your eyelashes get clogged.
Pink eye (conjunctivitis)
Pink eye causes pain, redness, pus, and burning in your eyes. The conjunctiva, or clear covering of the white part of your eye, appears red or pink when you have this condition. Pink eye can be highly contagious.
Cluster headaches typically cause pain in and behind one of your eyes. They also cause redness and watering in your eyes, Cluster headaches are extremely painful, but they’re not life-threatening. They can be treated with medication.
An infection confined to your cornea can cause pain in one eye, as well as redness and tearing. These can be bacterial infections that need to be treated with an antibiotic. If you wear contact lenses, you’re at a higher risk for a corneal ulcer to develop.
Iritis (also called anterior uveitis) describes inflammation that happens in the iris. It can be caused by genetic factors. Sometimes the cause of iritis is impossible to determine. Iritis causes redness, tearing, and an achy feeling in one or both of your eyes.
Glaucoma is pressure inside your eyeball that can lead to problems with your vision. Glaucoma can become increasingly painful as the pressure in your eyeball increases.
Optic neuritis damages your optic nerves. This condition is sometimes linked to Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and other neurological conditions.
A sty is a swollen area around your eyelid, typically caused by a bacterial infection. Stys often feel tender to the touch and can cause pain around the entire area of your eye.
Allergic conjunctivitis is inflammation in your eye caused by allergies. Redness, itchiness, and swelling sometimes accompany a burning pain and dryness. You may also feel as if you have dirt or something trapped in your eye.
Dry eye conditions
Dry eye can be caused by multiple health conditions, each with its own symptoms and pathology. Rosacea, autoimmune conditions, contact lens use, and environmental factors can all contribute to eyes that are dry, red, and painful.
Photokeratitis (flash burns)
If your eyes feel like they’re burning, your eyeball may have been exposed to too much UV light. This can cause a “sun burn” on the surface of your eye.
Many people experience changes in their vision as they age. This can cause you to strain your eyes when you’re trying to see something close to you or far away. Vision changes can cause headaches and eye pain until you find a corrective eyeglass prescription that works for you.
A corneal abrasion is a scratch on the surface of your cornea. It’s a common eye injury, and sometimes heals on its own.
An injury to your eye due to trauma can cause lasting damage and pain.
Since eye pain has many possible causes, noticing other symptoms you’re having can help narrow down the possible cause. Evaluating your other symptoms can also help you determine if you’re having a medical emergency and need to see a doctor right away.
Eyes hurt and you have a headache
When your eyes hurt, and you have a headache, the cause of your eye pain may stem from another health condition. Possibilities include:
eye strain from vision loss or astigmatism
sinusitis (sinus infection)
Eyes hurt to move
When your eyes hurt to move, it’s most likely due to eye strain. It could also be because of a sinus infection or injury. Common causes of eyes that hurt to move include:
Why does my right or left eye hurt?
If you only have eye pain on one side of your eye, you may have:
Treating eye pain
If your pain is mild and is not accompanied by other symptoms, like blurred vision or mucus, you may be able to treat the cause of your eye pain at home, or you may need to consider prescription or over-the-counter medication.
At-home treatment for eye pain
Home remedies for eye pain can cleanse your eyes of irritants and soothe pain.
A cold compress at the site of your eye pain can relieve burning and itching caused by rubbing, chemical exposure, and allergies.
Aloe vera can be diluted with cold water and applied to your closed eyes using fresh cotton swabs.
Over-the-counter eye drops can treat the symptoms of many causes of eye pain.
While you experience eye pain, wear sunglasses when you’re outside and drink plenty of water to keep your body hydrated. Avoid excessive screen time and try not to rub your eyes.
Washing your hands frequently can keep you from spreading bacteria from your eye to other parts of your body.
Medical treatment for eye pain
Medical treatments for eye pain usually come in the form of medicated drops. Antibiotic eye drops and eye ointment may be prescribed to address an infection.
If your eye pain is caused by an allergy, oral anti-allergy medication may be prescribed to decrease the severity of your symptoms.
Sometimes an eye condition will require surgical intervention. In these cases, a doctor will review your options with you before scheduling a surgery. Surgery for your eye pain will only be prescribed if your eyesight or your health are in danger.
When to see a doctor
According to the American Academy of Ophthalmologists, you should see a doctor right away if you have any of the following symptoms:
redness in your cornea
unusual sensitivity to light
exposure to pinkeye
eyes or eyelashes are encrusted with mucous
moderate to severe pain in your eyes or your head
Diagnosing eye pain
A doctor will ask you about your symptoms to diagnose eye pain and may give you a prescription for antibiotic eye drops.
A general practitioner may refer you to an eye doctor (ophthalmologist or optometrist) for more specialized testing. An eye doctor has equipment that enables them to look at the structures around your eye and inside your eyeball. They also have an instrument that tests pressure that could be building in your eye due to glaucoma.
Eye pain can be distracting and uncomfortable, but it’s common. Bacterial infections, corneal abrasions, and allergic reactions are some possible causes of your eye pain. Using home remedies or over-the-counter eye drops may help ease your pain.
You shouldn’t ignore pain in or around your eye. Infections that progress without treatment can threaten your eyesight and your health. Some causes of eye pain, like glaucoma and iritis, require a doctor’s attention.