Causes of Itchy Eyes
1. Non-Washed Eyes
Thick fat from the oil glands in the inner eye corner may cause itchy eyes if not washed off in the morning. Sweat from the face or hands while rubbing eyes also causes itchy eyes.
2. Foreign Body
A small object or fly falling in the eye usually causes intense itch and watery eye. Pulling the lower eyelid down, or inverting the upper eyelid up may help in location the object that can be then removed by a cotton stick. This procedure also helps in in-turned eyelash.
3. Aggressive Fluids and Gases
Aggressive fluids, like vinegar, acids, or solvents have to be removed from the eye immediately by rinsing the eye with lukewarm tap water. Rinsing also helps in itchy eyes due to smoke or other irritant environmental gases.
Salty sea water, shampoos, aftershave, cosmetic lotions and creams coming into an eye are usually not dangerous, but rinsing the eyes helps to relieve itch.
4. Common Cold, Flu, Sinusitis
In common diseases with runny nose and fever, eyes may itch due to increased tearing or conjunctivitis.
5. Conjunctivitis (Red Watery Eye or Pink Eye)
Conjunctiva is a thin translucent layer that covers the visible part of the eye sclera and the inner part of the eyelids. When the conjunctiva gets inflamed, its tinny blood vessels dilate, thus causing appearance of red or pink eye. Other symptoms may include itchiness, blurred vision, sensitivity to light, increased tearing and discharge. Condition is medically called conjunctivitis (3), common causes include:
- Acute bacterial conjunctivitis. Newborn may get infected with Neisseria gonorrhoeae from infected vagina during delivery. Profuse purulent discharge appears in one or both eyes 3-5 days after delivery. In young sexually active adults, conjunctivitis can be transmitted by hand from infected genitals. Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae may cause conjunctivitis as a part of a respiratory or skin infection. Treatment is with antibiotics by mouth or as eye-drops.
- Chronic bacterial conjunctivitis caused by Chlamidia trachomatis causes trachoma (mostly in undeveloped rural areas of the world); inclusion conjunctivitiscan be caught from genital infection. Treatment is with antibiotics. Chronic conjunctivitis may also appear in infected eyelids or acne rosacea.
- Viral conjunctivitis is often caused by Adenovirus, transmitted by fingers, medical instruments or swimming pools. Itchy eyes and watery discharge are main symptoms. Treatment is with cold compresses applied over the eyes for 10-15 minutes several times a day. Herpes simplex or Herpes zoster may cause painful keratoconjunctivitis, which can be treated by antiviral drugs.
- Allergic conjunctivitis is described below. Stringy translucent discharge is characteristic. Treatment is with antihistamines, anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids.
6. Eyelid Disorders
A stye (chalazion), an inflammation of the eyelid (blepharitis), or an eyelid carcinoma can all irritate the eye. Causes of itchy eyelid.
Trichiasis (Gk. trich- = related to hair; -iasis = related to eye) is anatomically mispositioned eyelash - an ingrown eyelash. A cause is often not known, but it can result from eyelid inflammation, conjunctival scar, injury, operation, or anatomical abnormality of the eyelash. Irritating eyelashes have to be removed with forceps, by electrolysis or freezing (1).
Non-Complete Eyelid Closure. Loose connection tissue due to age, constant weeping, inflammation of the eyelids or conjunctiva (that left scars), injury, Bell’s palsy, eyelid surgery or anatomical abnormalities may all result in drooping (out-turned) lower eyelid and hence non-complete eye closure, which causes increased evaporation of tears and dry itchy eyes. In-turned eyelid causes the same problems.
In allergies, both eyes are usually affected; eyes may be dry or wet. Eyes itch due to an allergic inflammation of the conjunctiva – a tinny pink membrane on the inner side of the eyelids connecting the eyeball and eyelids. Other possible symptoms are runny nose, itchy lips, swollen face, hives on the upper part of the body and, in severe cases, difficulty breathing, fainting and shock. Itchy eyes may be due to allergy to:
- Dust mites
- Pet hair and dander
- Foods, like eggs, cow’s milk, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish
- Cosmetics (shampoos, hair dyes, makeup)
- Insect bites (bees…)
- Household chemicals
- Contact lenses usually do not cause eye allergies, but may aggravate allergies from other reasons
Therapy in Allergic Reaction
Antihistamines by mouth, nasal corticosteroid spray or eye-drops usually help in a mild allergy (2). Prevention is by avoiding triggering substances and washing eyes frequently. Most allergies disappear with time, but some (to nuts and seafood) may persist lifelong.
Eye-drops containing antihistamines should be avoided, since they themselves may cause an allergic reaction. Eye-drops with decongestants – substances that shrink the vessels in the conjunctiva – should be also avoided since vessels may become dependent on them and may stop to shrink naturally after their prolonged use. Corticosteroid eye-drops may thin the skin on the eyelids after prolonged use.
8. Dry Eyes (Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca)
Keratoconjunctivitis sicca is an inflammation of the cornea and conjunctiva, causing dry, itchy, and sometimes red eyes, blurred vision, and sensitivity to light. Excessive tearing occurs when the nerves in an irritated dry cornea stimulate the tear glands to produce excessive amount of tears. These excessive tears are watery and do not moist the eye properly, so the drying-tearing cycle may continue. Main causes are mentioned below:
Low Tear Production
Conditions with decreased tear production:
- With age, especially in women after menopause, tear glands may decrease their tear production
- Medications: isotretinoin, sedatives, diuretics, tricyclic antidepressants, antihypertensives, oral contraceptives, antihistamines, nasal decongestants, beta-blockers, phenothiazines, atropine, opiates (morphine)
- Sjögren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disease that affects all glands with external secretion, including the tear glands, salivary glands, sweat and oil glands and glands in the bronchi and gastrointestinal tract
- Rheumatoid arthritis, vasculitis, systemic sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), Wegener’s granulomatosis, sarcoidosis, tear gland tumors, and post-radiation fibrosis may all affect tear glands
- Congenital disorders, like alacrima, xerophtalmia, tear gland ablation, or sensory denervation
Abnormal Tear Composition
Blepharitis, trachoma, rosacea, and vitamin A deficiency may result in dry itchy eyes due to to an abnormal tear composition. Insufficient blinking during tasks that require high concentration, as reading, working with the computer may result in reduced oiling of the cornea, and thus eye dryness.
Environmental Causes of Dry Eyes
Wind, sun, high altitude, air pollution and the dust are outdoor causes of dry itchy eyes. Indoor heating, air condition, and smoking may cause dry itchy eyes and other symptoms of the “sick building syndrome”.
LASIK or other refractive surgery may damage corneal nerves that stimulate tear secretion. Condition usually recovers after some time.
Soft contact lenses interfere with tear flow over the cornea, and may cause dry itchy eyes, especially after prolonged use.
Pterygium (4) is a small fleshy outgrowth from the cornea, usually appearing in the inner corner of the eye. It may be a result of a chronic eye irritation, but exact cause is not known. If it causes symptoms, it can be surgically removed.
Diagnosis of the Cause of Itchy Eyes
Most causes of dry eyes are obvious from the sufferer’s history. Eye examination can reveal problems with eyelids. In Schirmer’s test, a strip of paper is stuck under the lower lids and lenght of paper soaked with tears is measured after 5 minutes. A dermatologist may be needed to evaluate an eventual eyelid disease.
General Treatment And Prevention Possibilities in Itchy Eyes
- Sun glasses or special airlock seal eyeglasses may protect the eyes against wind, pollen and dust.
- Avoid rubbing your eyes.
- Remember to blink regularly, make regular pauses when reading or working with a computer.
- Artificial tears may help in dry eyes. Restasis eye-drops (cyclosporine in a castor oil) increase tear production. These should be not confused with “eye-drops against a red-eye” that even worsen dry eyes.
- Omega-3 fatty acids by adding salmon or sardines into the diet should be considered in dry eyes, when the lack of essential fatty acids is suspected.
- Indoor air filters remove dust from the air, and humidifiers add moisture to air.
- Temporary or permanent punctal occlusion. Openings (Lat. puncta) through which tears flow from the eye into the nose cavity can be occluded with plugins, which prevent draining of tears out from the eye.
- Medications by mouth: anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, antihistamines or antibiotics by mouth to treat eventual eye or eyelid inflammation or infection.
- A surgery may be needed to correct eyelid abnormalities.
- Itchy Face
- Itchy Scalp
- Itchy Neck Rash
- Itchy Skin Causes
- Itchy Rash
- Itch (Pruritus) - Diagnosis and Treatment
- Trichiasis causes and treatment (merck.com)
- Treating allergies in kids (kidshealth.org)
- Conjunctivitis – causes, symptoms, and treatment (aafp.org)
- Pterygium conjunctivae (apagrafix.com)
Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on August 3, 2013