Broken Blood Vessel in The Eye

A broken blood vessel in the eye can seem like a medical emergency, but in most cases it's harmless and easily treated. Keep reading to see if your case requires treatment, what may have caused it, and how to prevent it from happening again.

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Also known as a subconjunctival hemorrhage, a broken blood vessel in the eye is typically a harmless condition that clears up within one to three weeks. Subconjunctival is the term used to describe the space located just beneath the conjunctiva (the clear surface of your eye). The term hemorrhage refers to the breakage of tiny blood vessels.

Most people do not realize they have a broken blood vessel until someone tells them or they look in a mirror. This condition is not painful, and typically develops after blunt trauma to the eye. In most cases, treatment is not needed for a subconjunctival hemorrhage.

Symptoms of a Broken Blood Vessel in the Eye

Besides the visible bleeding between the sclera (the white part of the eye) and conjunctiva, many people describe a scratchy feeling on the surface of the eye. Pain is generally non-existent or minimal, and there is no change in vision, although discomfort and feelings of embarrassment are possible.

Causes and Risks of a Broken Blood Vessel in the Eye

The conjunctiva contains several nerves and tiny blood vessels. These blood vessels (which are barely visible until they become inflamed and enlarged) are fragile, and their walls can easily break. Events that can cause blood vessels in the eye to break include:

  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Vomiting
  • Straining
  • Crying
  • Rubbing your eyes
  • Blunt trauma
  • Increased intracranial or intraocular pressure
  • Shaken baby syndrome (often the case in children with subconjunctival hemorrhages in both eyes)

This is not an exhaustive list; often the exact cause of the injury is unknown. There are several factors that can increase the risk of a broken blood vessel in the eye. For example, medications and supplements such as warfarin, aspirin, Plavix, and high doses of vitamin E can thin the blood and make it easier for hemorrhages to occur. Although rare, St. John’s wort, ginkgo biloba, ginger, and cayenne can also increase one’s risk if taken in high doses. Occasionally, blood vessels in the eye will break due to conjunctivitis (eye infection) and high blood pressure.

Diagnosing a Broken Blood Vessel in the Eye

If you have a broken blood vessel in your eye and you are concerned, you should contact your eye doctor and schedule an appointment. In most cases, a simple eye exam is enough for an ophthalmologist to properly diagnose a subconjunctival hemorrhage. If the cause is unknown, however, he or she may perform a series of tests to rule out eye conditions that may be causing the hemorrhaging. Your eye doctor will ask you about your medical history (medications included), and about any activities that may have induced the rupture. If trauma is the cause, a more thorough examination will be performed to ensure that damage has not occurred to other structures in your eye.

Broken Blood Vessel in Eye Treatment

In most cases, treatment is not needed for a subconjunctival hemorrhage. If you are experiencing pain or discomfort, over-the-counter pain medications such as Tylenol may be recommended. Aspirin and related products should be avoided due to their blood-thinning side effects. Those who take aspirin or anticoagulants for a medical condition should talk with their eye doctor to determine whether it is safe to continue using these during the healing process. Over-the-counter artificial tears may also help reduce any irritation. If the subconjunctival hemorrhage is due to trauma, other treatment may be necessary to promote healing. If an infection is present, antibiotic eye drops or ointment may be prescribed. Typically, the condition clears up on its own within two or three weeks without long-term problems.

Preventing Broken Blood Vessels in the Eye

Subconjunctival hemorrhages can sometimes be prevented. To avoid eye injuries, wear protective eyewear during athletic events or whenever you are exposed to environments that involve flying particles (such as dust) or bright sunlight. If you are experiencing recurrent subconjunctival hemorrhages, seek medical attention to rule out underlying blood-clotting conditions. Treatment of an underlying medical condition can prevent symptoms such as broken blood vessels.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • How severe is my hemorrhage?
  • How long will my eye be red?
  • What can I do to prevent this from happening again?
  • Which treatment options do I have?
  • Which complications may arise if my eye is left untreated?
  • Can this harm my vision in the future?
References:
  • J. Anshel, MD “Smart Medicine for Your Eyes” (SquareOne Publishers, 2011) 138-139, 134-135
  • J. DiGirolamo, MD “The Big Book of Family Eye Care” (Basic Health Publications, 2011) 174-176
  • J. Lavine, MD “The Eye Care Sourcebook” (Contemporary Books, 2001) 105-106
This article was last updated on 11/2013