What are itchy eyes?
Itchy eyes, also known as ocular pruritis, are a very common problem. Itchy eyes are usually caused by an allergy or by a condition called dry eye syndrome. You might also have itchy eyelids, usually at the base of the eyelashes, and your eyes and/or eyelids might be swollen.
What causes itchy eyes?
The most common cause of itchy eyes is an allergy. Itchy eyes can be triggered by exposure to pollen, animal fur, mould, dust mites, make-up or eye drops. The body reacts to the trigger by releasing histamine, causing the blood vessels in the eye to dilate and irritating the nerve endings so the eyes water. When the eyes get red because of an allergy, it is known as allergic conjunctivitis (also called pink eye or red eye).
Allergic conjunctivitis is more common at certain times of the year, although you can still have it all year round. It also causes a runny nose, scratchy throat and sneezing.
Other types of allergy can give you itchy eyes. For example, a condition called atopic keratoconjunctivitis produces an inflammation of the surface of the eye because of an allergy to a specific substance. Another condition, vernal keratoconjunctivitis (VKC), produces inflammation in the membrane on the surface of the eye. This usually affects young boys.
If you have eczema, a form of dermatitis, around your eyes this too can cause itching.
Other causes of itchy eyes include:
- dry eye syndrome — when you do not produce enough of the right kind of tears to keep the surface of your eye moist and comfortable
- an object or chemical in your eye
- blepharitis — inflammation of the eyelids, often caused by an infection
- an infection caused by contact lenses
- a reaction to a medicines, such as birth control pills, antihistamines, painkillers or antidepressants
When should I see my doctor?
See a doctor if:
- your symptoms aren’t getting better
- you have thick discharge from your eyes
- your eyes are stuck together
- you can’t keep your eye open
- your vision is changed or blurred
- you have something in your eye
- you can see a halo around lights
- it hurts to look at bright lights
- your pupils are different sizes
- your eyes are swollen
- you are in pain
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How are itchy eyes treated?
It is important to see your pharmacist or optometrist to work out the cause of your itchy eyes.
Itching caused by an allergy can be helped with antihistamine or anti-inflammatory eye drops. It can help to use artificial tears (eye drops designed to lubricate dry eyes) to wash away any allergens on the surface of your eye. Sometimes you may need to take an oral antihistamine.
If you have something in your eye, try to wash it out with warm water or a saline solution. If that doesn’t work, you should see a doctor within 24 hours.
Itchy eyes self-help
Relieve the itching by placing a clean, cold, damp washcloth or an ice pack over your closed eyes. You can also try bathing your eyes with cold water. Try not to rub your eyes because this will make the itching worse and could damage them.
If you have dry eye, make the air as humid as possible by placing bowls of water around the room.
Can itchy eyes be prevented?
If the itching is caused by an allergy, identify what you are allergic to and remove it. Your doctor can help you and may refer you to a specialist immunologist or allergist if a more complicated assessment is needed. For example, house dust mites and pet fur are common triggers. You should also talk to your doctor about whether changing your medicines could help prevent itchy eyes.
Try to avoid things that can irritate the eyes, such as dry air, wind, pollen, cigarette smoke, dust, chemicals, strong smells, or staring at a screen for a long time. Make a conscious effort to blink more often to lubricate your eyes.
Always use hypoallergenic products near your eyes and use eye protection to prevent pollen, dust or sand from getting into your eyes. Eating a diet with plenty of vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids can also help.
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Last reviewed: July 2020