Burning Eyes

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What are burning eyes?

Burning eyes describes a feeling of burning and irritation of the eyes. Burning eyes can be accompanied by itching, tearing, or discharge from the eyes.

Burning eyes have many possible causes. One of the most common is exposure to environmental pollutants such as tobacco smoke, smog, or dust. Chemicals found in household cleaning solvents, such as bleach, soap and shampoo, can lead to burning eyes. Chlorine in swimming pools can also make your eyes burn. Extremes of cold or hot dry air may also result in burning eyes. Wearing your contact lenses for prolonged periods can make your eyes burn.

Allergies can cause inflammation leading to burning eyes. Your eyes may respond to airborne allergens, such as pollens or animal dander, or to localized allergens, such as makeup and moisturizers. Conjunctivitis, which describes inflammation of the membranes that line your eyelids and cover the whites of your eyes, may be caused by either allergies or infection with bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms. Upper respiratory infections, such as influenza (flu) or the common cold, may be accompanied by burning eyes.

The treatment for burning eyes varies depending on the cause. In many cases, the burning goes away by itself when you get away from the irritating factor, such as smoke. In other cases, use of over-the-counter artificial tears or antihistamines can relieve burning eyes. If you have conjunctivitis caused by bacteria, your health care provider may prescribe antibiotic eye drops or ointment. Because your eyes are so important to the quality of your life, it’s always a good idea to contact your health care provider for any bothersome eye symptoms.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have burning eyes together with bleeding from the eyes or eye discharge resembling pus, or if you have a sudden change in vision, severe eye pain, or sensitivity to light.

Seek prompt medical care if your symptoms of burning eyes are persistent, recurrent, or cause you concern.

What other symptoms might occur with burning eyes?

Burning eyes may accompany other symptoms, which will vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. The causes of burning eyes may also involve other body systems.

Other eye symptoms that may occur along with burning eyes

Burning eyes may accompany other symptoms related to the eye including:

Nasal symptoms that may occur along with burning eyes

Burning eyes may accompany nasal symptoms including:

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have burning eyes along with other serious symptoms including:

  • Bleeding from the eye
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Discharge from the eye
  • Eye pain
  • Loss of vision or changes in vision
  • Seeing flashing lights
  • Seeing floating objects or spots

What causes burning eyes?

Burning eyes have many possible causes. One of the most common is exposure to environmental pollutants such as tobacco smoke, smog, or dust or household items, such as bleach, soap or shampoo. Chlorine in swimming pools can also make your eyes burn. Extremes of cold or hot dry air may also result in burning eyes. Wearing your contact lenses for prolonged periods can make your eyes burn.

Allergies can cause inflammation leading to burning eyes. Conjunctivitis, which describes inflammation of the membranes that line your eyelids and cover the whites of your eyes, may be caused by either allergies or infection with bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms. Upper respiratory infections, such as influenza (flu) or the common cold, may also be accompanied by burning eyes.

Environmental causes of burning eyes

Burning eyes may be caused by environmental factors including:

  • Dry air
  • Dust
  • Mold
  • Pet dander
  • Pollen
  • Smog
  • Smoke

Chemical causes of burning eyes

Burning eyes can also be caused by exposure to chemicals including:

  • Household cleaning solvents
  • Makeup
  • Moisturizers
  • Shampoo
  • Soap
  • Swimming pool chlorine

Disease causes of burning eyes

Burning eyes can accompany infections and inflammatory processes including:

  • Allergies
  • Chronic blepharitis (inflammation of eyelid margins)
  • Conjunctivitis (inflammation of the eye surface)
  • Upper respiratory infections, such as the common cold or influenza (flu)

Serious or life-threatening causes of burning eyes

In some cases, burning eyes may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Periorbital cellulitis (infection of the eyelids or other soft tissue around the eyes)
  • Uveitis and iritis (inflammation of structures of the eye)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of burning eyes

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your burning eyes including:

  • When did first feel your eyes burning?
  • Are you sensitive to light?
  • Has your vision decreased?
  • Do you wear contact lenses?
  • Do you have eye pain?
  • Are there other symptoms, such as a stuffy nose or postnasal drip?
  • Is there discharge from your eye?

What are the potential complications of burning eyes?

If you frequently have burning eyes, it could indicate that you have an eye allergy or eye infection. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care provider design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Loss of vision
  • Spread of infection
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 4
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Eye burning - itching and discharge. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine.    http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003034.htm
  2. Eye Allergy. American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. http://acaai.org/allergies/types/eye-allergies