Sore eyes can affect one or both eyes. The eyes may feel as if a foreign object is in them, or they may feel tired, heavy, and hard to keep open. A common cause of sore eyes is conjunctivitis (or pink eye), but the problem can also be caused by an infection, allergies, too much sun exposure, eye fatigue, or contact lens wear.
Sore Eye Symptoms
You will encounter many different symptoms if you are suffering from sore eyes. Symptoms generally peak within three or four days and last up to two weeks. These symptoms include:
- Redness of the eyes
- Gritty sensation
- Photophobia (sensitivity to light)
- Difficulty opening eyes after sleeping
- Eyelids stuck together after sleeping
- Watery discharge
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Lymph glands are sore (lymph glands are your body’s defensive filter, they are located behind the ears)
What Causes Sore Eyes?
Sore eyes can be caused by a variety of things. In most cases they are caused by staring at a computer screen or book for too long. Your eyes may become sore after a long day at work or if you have been deprived of sleep. An incorrect eyeglass prescription may also lead to sore eyes. Additional causes may include:
- Airborne irritants such as chemicals, smoke, smog, animal dander, and pollen
- Contact lens wear
- Excessive rubbing of eyes
- Inflammation caused by allergens or infections
- Too much sun exposure
- Dry eyes or inadequate lubrication of eye surface
- Viral infections such as the common cold
- Pink eye
In some cases, sore eyes may be caused by a serious condition such as optic neuritis, uveitis, iritis, or orbital cellulitis. If sore eyes are occurring daily you should seek medical attention.
Diagnosing Sore Eyes
To diagnose what is causing your sore eyes, your eye care provider will ask you questions about your symptoms. He or she will also inquire about your lifestyle, previous eye problems, and diet. Then an eye examination will be preformed to check the internal and external structures of your eyes and to rule out possible causes. Once a diagnosis is made, treatment options can be explored.
Treatment for Sore Eyes
The best thing you can do if you have sore eyes is to seek medical attention. Contact your health care provider or an eye doctor for an eye exam immediately. Treatment for sore eyes can begin once a diagnosis is made. Treating the underlying cause of sore eyes will cause the soreness and other symptoms to disappear. Catching an eye problem early can prevent further damage to your eyes. Your ophthalmologist may prescribe you anti-inflammatory or antibiotic eye drops or ointment. Antiviral medications may also be in store. To relieve discomfort at home, you can try applying warm compresses to your eyes for five to ten minutes three times a day. Additional steps you can take to reduce the soreness include:
- Get more sleep at night
- Drink plenty of water throughout the day
- Eat a well balanced diet
- Avoid rubbing your eyes
- Take “eye breaks” from activities that may be causing eye strain
Prognosis for Sore Eyes
In most cases sore eyes can be relieved with proper treatment of the underlying cause. Depending on the cause, it may be up to two weeks before you see any progress. For example, if your sore eyes are due to insufficient sleep, you may see relief within days if you begin getting a proper amount of shut-eye daily. But if your eye soreness is due to conjunctivitis, you may not get any relief until medication cures the infection, which usually takes a week or two.
Complications of Sore Eyes
Although many cases of sore eyes resolve themselves, if the cause is an underlying condition such as dry eyes, the problem will not go away until treatment is sought. If treatment is delayed, complications can arise. These complications may include:
- Corneal scarring
- Vision changes or loss of vision
- Spread of infection
- Development of other eye problems
Preventing Sore Eyes
There are many things you can do to prevent sore eyes. Washing your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water is a great start. Avoid touching your eyes and face when you have not washed your hands. Do not share towels, eyeglasses, sunglasses, or cosmetics, as this may spread the infection.
If you have had symptoms of sore eyes, and have been using any cosmetics that are applied to your eyes or in the area of your eye, it is best to discontinue using these products and discard them. Purchase new cosmetics and wait until the condition has been treated successfully before resuming use. Disinfect surfaces, especially common ones such as doorknobs and counters, with diluted bleach solutions. Bleach is known to kill germs.
Your doctor will probably mention this to you, but be careful that the tips of eye drop applicators or tubes of ointment do not touch your eyes or eyelashes while you are using them. This goes for all types of eye drops and ointments, not just the one your doctor prescribes to you.
If someone close to you is infected, make sure to disinfect and wash all surfaces, clothes, towels, pillow cases, and anything else that may have come into contact with that person. If you have other symptoms, it is best to stay away from others to prevent the spread of infection until the symptoms are relieved and treatment is successful.
Eat a well balanced diet to ensure that the rest of your body receives enough nutrients to function correctly. Drink plenty of water, as this can help to reduce inflammation. Try your best to get plenty of sleep so your eyes and body are not tired the next day. Visit your eye doctor once a year or as often as he or she recommends. Routine eye exams can catch problems during their early stages, which may help you to avoid sore eyes.
Talking to Your Eye Doctor
Here are some questions to ask your eye doctor if you are experiencing sore eyes:
- How much sleep should I be getting each night?
- What is causing my sore eyes?
- How often should I be using my eye drops?
- Which over-the-counter eye products should I stay away from? Which ones do you recommend most to your patients?
- What can I do to prevent sore eyes at the end of each day?
- Which eye exercises are known to reduce sore eyes?
- What should I do during my “eye breaks”?
Did you know…your computer should be 17 to 26 inches from your face, and at a 10 to 20 degree viewing angle?
- J. DiGirolamo, MD “The Big Book of Family Eye Care” (Basic Health Publications, Inc. 2011) 121-122; 92-93
- J. Anshel, MD “Smart Medicine for Your Eyes” (SquareOne Publishers, 2011) 141-142