There can be many different reasons why the whites of your eyes (sclera) are red: sometimes your eyes look red but don’t cause you any discomfort and other times they can be itchy, watery or gritty.
The cause is usually a common eye problem but there can be some uncommon causes. It’s worth going to see a doctor if red eye is uncomfortable for more than five days.
Red eye can be caused by an infection such as conjunctivitis (viral, bacterial, allergic or chemical), an allergy such as hay fever, an irritation such as smoke, dust, eye make-up or computer screens, a foreign body in your eye, corneal ulceration and haemorrhage.
You can treat red eye yourself by removing the cause of the irritant and bathing your eye to clean it, or by trying over-the-counter eye drops or ointments that can treat the underlying cause (infection or allergy).
Conjunctivitis (pink eye)
This is an extremely infectious eye condition in which the lining of the eyelids and of the eyeball (the conjunctiva) becomes inflamed from bacterial or viral infections or by allergies.
Conjunctivitis causes either one or both eyes to be sore red, sticky and itchy, and very light sensitive. You can have a discharge in your eyes that forms a crust during the night and the whites of your eyes can begin to have a pink colour.
Who gets it?
Newborns often get conjunctivitis (also known as pink eye) from a blocked tear duct or from getting an infection from their mother during the birth.
It is a very common eye problem, especially for under five-year-olds, and children with conjunctivitis should be kept home from school until the eye discharge has gone.
Most conjunctivitis is not serious enough to damage your eyes, but some forms of it such as trachoma, caused by Chlamydia bacteria, can result in permanent damage to the eyes and eventually blindness if it is not treated.
Go to a doctor for treatment as soon as you notice the symptoms as it is very contagious.
Healthy eyes are moist eyes: a lack of normal tears makes your eyes feel dry, gritty and sore, or can even cause them to water uncontrollably from the wind.
Without tears, good vision is impossible. The surface of your eyes are constantly lubricated by a film of tears which stops eye infection and, as you blink, clears your eyes of anything that shouldn’t be in there. Your eyes also form extra tears to wash away irritating material such as dust, wind or smoke.
Confusing though it may be, dry eye can cause a watery eye! The tears may be flowing but if they are poor quality they will not stick to the eyeball and will flow down the face.
Dry eyes are more common as you get older because you produce a smaller volume of tears. Some medications, such as antihistamines, benzodiazepines, diuretics, oral contraceptives, antipsychotics and tricyclic antidepressants – and surgery – can cause dry eye, and some general health conditions such as arthritis and menopause are associated with dry eye.
Climates with low humidity, open air, wind, high altitude and sunlight, and air conditioning and cabin pressure in a plane can make it worse.
Dry eyes should be treated as, even though the problem doesn’t usually cause permanent damage, severe dryness can lead to eye inflammation, infection and scarring on the surface of your cornea.
Preventing dry eyes
- Use lubricating over-the-counter eye drops (artificial tears) as often as you need. You can also use them before you start work on the computer or start reading.
- Use an ointment before going to sleep.
- Wear wrap-around glasses on windy days and goggles if you swim.
- Blink often to help spread your tears more evenly, especially for computer work.
- Avoid airconditioners, if possible, and boost the humidity at home and at work by placing bowls of water to evaporate near where you are spending time.
- Try not to rub your eyes
- Check your medications and discuss with your doctor if you think they are causing dry eyes. For serious cases of dry eye, special plugs can be inserted into the tear ducts to prevent tear loss. Surgery may be considered.
Seeing spots before your eyes? These tiny specs are called floaters and are yet another sign of getting old. Floaters seem to be on the front of the eye, but are really tiny spots, strands or specks in the clear, jelly-like substance (the vitreous) that fills the central cavity inside your eye.
As you age, the vitreous shrinks, thickens or becomes more liquid. Floaters are suspended in the jelly. Sometimes you think you are imagining these floaters but they can be seen easily by an ophthalmologist with medical equipment.
Eye floaters don’t need treatment but go to see your doctor if they get worse as they can be related to complications from cataract surgery, inflammation of the eye, diabetic retinopathy, migraine and high blood pressure.
If you start to get other symptoms, such as flashing lights and hazy vision, you could have a retinal tear or detachment. This situation is a medical emergency and requires urgent treatment to preserve your sight.
When floaters are particularly bothersome, an operation is performed to remove the jelly from the eye.
All material is © Media 21 Publishing, and originally appeared in the August 2008 issue of Good Health & Medicine magazine.