Sore eyes is a broad term describing a range of possible sensations. The eyes may feel as if a foreign object is in them, or they may feel tired, heavy, and hard to keep open. One 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 may encounter many different symptoms if you are suffering from sore eyes. 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.
In most big cities, and even in many suburbs, the air is filled with pollutants that can irritate sensitive eyes. These irritants include chemical smoke from factories, automobile exhaust, smog, and more. At certain times of year—notably in the springtime—pollen can be a powerful irritant (as will be discussed later, in the allergies section of this article).
Another source of airborne eye irritants is the earth itself. On extremely windy days, dust and other fine particulate matter can be stirred up by strong winds. This dust is often not visible except as a haze in the distance, but it can affect our eyes just the same.
People who live in certain climates are especially vulnerable to airborne dust and debris. In California, for example, there is a well-known phenomenon called the Santa Ana winds. These winds originate in the inland mountains of Southern California, and they blow frequently throughout the fall and winter months, bringing with them misery for people with sensitive eyes, from Los Angeles all the way down through the Mexican state of Baja California.
Contact Lenses or Glasses
Contact lenses can be extremely irritating to people who are unaccustomed to them, especially if they are worn incorrectly. If you are experiencing sore eyes and have recently been fitted for contacts, check with your eye doctor to see whether the source of your eye pain might be your contact lenses. It is possible that you are doing something wrong when inserting your lenses, in which case your doctor will be able to show you how to insert your contact lenses in a way that does not make your eyes sore.
Besides the fit, there are other ways in which contact lenses can cause sore eyes. You may simply need time to get used to a new prescription, or you may need to have your existing prescription changed or updated. Obviously, this applies to glasses as well.
Excessive Rubbing of Eyes
Many people suffer from nervous tics or obsessive compulsions that cause them to rub their eyes constantly. If this is the cause of your sore eyes, you may need to seek psychiatric help.
Inflammation Caused by Allergens
Animal dander, pollen, dust, and other common airborne substances can trigger allergic reactions in people who are sensitive to them. The body’s defenses interpret these harmless substances as a threat, and the body reacts by releasing chemicals called histamines, which cause itching, sneezing, and eye inflammation.
Spending too much time in the sun without adequate eye protection can cause your eyes to become sore for two reasons:
- Your eyes are irritated by the sun itself
- Your eye muscles become fatigued from constant squinting.
To avoid this problem, always be sure to wear a hat and sunglasses when you go out into the sun, and be sure your sunglasses are designed to offer maximum protection from the sun’s harmful UV rays.
Many people suffer from a medical condition known as Dry Eye Syndrome, which can cause painful, sore eyes. To learn more about this condition, click here.
Excessive Computer Use
If you spend a good portion of your day staring at a computer monitor, or even if you spend a few hours each night reading a good book, you may be causing eye fatigue, which can in turn cause sore eyes.
Computer use, in particular, can be associated with a problem known as computer vision syndrome. The human eye cannot focus on computer pixels in the same way it can focus on printed material on a page, and it must continually readjust while you are working at your computer. Over time, this cause a repetitive-stress type of injury to the eye.
Other Medical Causes of Sore Eyes
Diagnosing Sore Eyes
To diagnose what is causing your sore eyes, your eye care provider will ask you 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. Catching an eye problem early can prevent further damage to your eyes. Depending on the cause of your condition, your ophthalmologist or optometrist may prescribe you anti-inflammatory or antibiotic eye drops or ointment, or possibly antiviral medications. 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 eye 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, such as prolonged computer use
Prognosis for Sore Eyes
In most cases sore eyes can be relieved with proper treatment of the underlying cause. 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. On the other hand, 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:
- Vision changes or loss of vision
- Spread of infection
- Development of other eye problems
Preventing Sore Eyes
What are the best steps to take to prevent your eyes from becoming sore? That depends on what is causing the problem. As we discussed previously, this symptom can be caused by any of a number of factors, and the correct remedy varies from one to the next.
How to Prevent Sore Eyes Caused by Cosmetics
If you have had symptoms of sore eyes, and you 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.
Certain eye make-up products—eyeliner pencils, for example—can become breeding grounds for bacteria over time. Continuing to use these products can lead to eye infections and other problems, and these problems can in turn cause sore eyes.
Purchase new cosmetics and wait until the condition caused by them has been treated successfully before resuming use.
How to Prevent Sore Eyes Caused by Medications or Eye Drops
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. The reason for this is essentially the same as the reason for caution with eye make-up, as discussed in the previous section: bacteria can grow on devices that are used on the body in the ways that make-up or eye-drop applicators are used, and this can lead to infection, a common cause of sore eyes.
How to Prevent Sore Eyes Caused by Infections or Contagious Diseases
If someone close to you has an infection of any kind (not necessarily just an eye infection), make sure to disinfect and wash all surfaces, clothes, towels, pillowcases, and anything else that may have come into contact with that person. Disinfect surfaces, especially common ones such as doorknobs and counters, with diluted bleach solutions. Bleach kills germs.
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.
How to Prevent Sore Eyes Caused by Reading or Computer Use
Reading for long periods in dim light is one common cause of sore eyes, and staring at a computer monitor for too long is another. In both cases, the problems are eyestrain and eye fatigue. If you are curled up n the couch with a good book, make sure you have adequate reading light—preferably a 60- to 70-watt bulb.
If you work in front of a computer all day, try to remember to take “eye breaks” every hour in order to avoid computer vision syndrome. Spend at least a minute or two each hour looking away from your computer monitor—if possible focusing your gaze on a point twenty to a hundred feet away.
How to Prevent Sore Eyes Caused by Allergies
If you have seasonal allergies, you may find yourself battling red, itchy, sore eyes every spring and/or fall. Take over-the-counter antihistamines to prevent these attacks, or ask your doctor if he or she can prescribe anything stronger for you to take. Keep your doors and windows shut as much as possible at these times of year.
How to Prevent Sore Eyes Caused by Sun Exposure
This should be self-evident, but it is worth mentioning here nonetheless: if you go out in the sun during the day, be sure to wear adequate eye protection. Choose sunglasses that block the sun’s harmful UV rays, and wear a hat or visor to shield your eyes. This is especially important if you suffer from extreme light sensitivity.
Prevent Sore Eyes by Taking Care of Your Health
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?
- 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