Sore Eyes: How to Look After Irritated Eyes

Medically Reviewed By Jenna Stoddard, OD
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Sore eyes are an unpleasant sensation in or around one or both eyes. The eyes may feel gritty, tender, or tired. Sore eyes can result from different types of irritation, including airborne irritants and environmental factors, and underlying conditions. They can be treatable but may present further complications. Experiencing soreness in one or both eyes is common and not always serious. However, anyone with eye symptoms should check their condition with an eye doctor.

Sore eyes can be a symptom of eye disease, and emergency medical attention may be necessary for symptoms that pose a risk to your vision.

Read on to learn more about sore eyes, including their causes and treatment options.

What causes your eyes to feel sore?

Woman rubs corners of eyes with her eyes closed
Zheng Long/Stocksy United

Sore eyes can result from many different conditions and factors. These can include physical irritation, infection, and inflammation. Sore eyes could also point to an underlying eye disease.

Everyday causes of sore eyes

Sore eyes can occur as the result of certain everyday circumstances, including:

  • exposure to environmental irritants, such as smoke, smog, dust, or air and heat conditioning
  • windy, cold, dry, or dusty weather
  • prolonged use of digital screens
  • incorrect care or use of contact lenses
  • foreign bodies in the eye
  • contact lens wear
  • actions that injure or scratch the eye
  • excessive rubbing of the eyes
  • incorrect eyewear use, such as using glasses of an incorrect or inaccurate prescription or strength

Learn more about computer vision syndrome here.

Inflammatory causes of sore eyes

Sore eyes can also be the result of inflammation or reactions to irritation. These causes include:

  • blepharitis, or inflammation of the eyelids
  • conjunctivitis, or pink eye, which refers to inflammation of the front of the eye
  • chronic dry eye
  • abrasions or scratches to the eye, particularly corneal abrasion
  • a stye, which is a sensitive bump on the eyelid
  • a respiratory infection, such as the common cold or COVID-19
  • sinusitis
  • infection of the eye, such as a corneal infection
  • hay fever or an allergic reaction to animal dander, dust, cosmetics, or pollen

Serious or life threatening causes of sore eyes

In some cases, sore eyes may be a symptom of a more serious condition that can worsen vision or present a risk of blindness. You should seek medical care in an emergency setting

for these conditions.

These conditions can include:

  • glaucoma, which is a group of diseases that can damage the optic nerve
  • keratitis, which is an irritated or diseased cornea
  • optic neuritis, which is inflammation of the optic nerve
  • uveitis or iritis, which is inflammation inside the eye as a result of trauma, infection, or an immune system disorder
  • orbital cellulitis, which is an invasive infection of the soft tissues around the eye
  • macular degeneration
  • diabetic retinopathy, which refers to damage to the blood vessels of the retina

Risk factors for eye disease

Factors that may put an individual at risk of eye disease and vision problems can include:

  • prematurity at birth
  • an infection in the birthing parent during pregnancy or intoxication during pregnancy
  • a family history of ocular disease
  • systemic health conditions
  • contact lens wear
  • eye surgery or previous eye injury
  • functional vision in one eye only
  • use of prescription or nonprescription drugs that may have ocular side effects
  • high or progressive refractive errors, which are vision problems that may require the use of glasses or other seeing aids

Sore eyes and COVID-19

COVID-19 can also cause ocular symptoms such as sore eyes.

Eye irritation can be a symptom of COVID-19, and, in very rare cases, it may be the only symptom that someone with the disease experiences.

COVID-19 affects the eyes by entering the ocular surface. The disease has the potential to cause conjunctivitis.

Distinguishing COVID-19-related eye soreness from other causes of eye discomfort can be difficult. The American Academy of Ophthalmology indicates that eyes that are itchy and watering are normally due to allergies, not COVID-19.

However, if a fever accompanies your sore eyes, it may be COVID-19. Fever is a common symptom of SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes COVID-19.

What other symptoms might occur with sore eyes?

Sore eyes may accompany other symptoms, which can vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder, or condition.

Ocular symptoms that may occur alongside sore eyes

Sore eyes may accompany other symptoms affecting the ocular system, including:

  • foreign body sensation, or the feeling that something is in the eye
  • increased sensitivity to light
  • yellow, green, or watery discharge from the eye
  • bloody discharge from the eye
  • sores or spots on the eye
  • blurred, cloudy, or impaired vision
  • eyestrain
  • sharp, stabbing sensations
  • redness of the eye or the area around the eye, or bloodshot eyes
  • a dull ache or burning sensation in the eye
  • puffy, swollen eyelids

Other symptoms that may occur alongside sore eyes

Sore eyes may also accompany symptoms related to other bodily systems and behaviors, including:

When to seek medical help

In some cases, sore eyes may occur with symptoms that might indicate a serious condition that requires immediate evaluation. 

Contact an eye doctor for any eye-related symptoms that do not improve after a few weeks.

Seek emergency medical care for sore eyes that occur alongside other serious signs and symptoms, including:

  • severe or sudden eye pain
  • severe or sudden double vision
  • light flashes or floating spots in your vision
  • sudden onset of halos or rainbows surrounding light sources
  • one or both eyes turning bright red
  • vision changes or difficulty seeing
  • one eye sticking out farther than the other
  • the eyes not moving together as they should
  • blood in the eyes
  • a torn or cut eyelid
  • eye swelling or swelling of the area around the eye
  • unusual size or shape of the pupil
  • a foreign object in the eye area that will not flush out
  • symptoms that get worse or do not improve
  • a weakened immune system
  • nausea
  • fever

If you have sore eyes after recently injuring your eyes or the area close to your eyes, seek urgent medical attention.
Many eye and vision problems do not initially present any obvious signs or symptoms. For this reason, having routine eye checks is important — even without symptoms of ill eye health.

How often should you contact an eye doctor?

The American Optometric Association recommends having an eye examination with the following frequency:

Age or circumstanceRecommended examination frequency
18–65 yearsat least every 2 years
65+ yearsat least once annually, or as often as their doctor recommends
adults at risk of eye diseaseat least once annually, or as often as their doctor recommends
under 2 yearsat least one examination between 6 and 12 months of age
3–5 yearsat least once between the ages of 3 and 5 years
6–17 yearsannually
children at risk of eye diseaseat least once annually, or as often as their doctor recommends

Diagnosing the cause of sore eyes

To diagnose your condition, your eye doctor may ask questions about any vision loss or vision changes you have experienced. They may also ask about any eye habits you have, such as the use of contact lenses.

Depending on your symptoms and answers, your eye doctor may continue to examine your eye health.

Information an optometrist may use to diagnose your condition can include:

  • the onset, nature, and duration of your symptoms
  • your history of eye and general health
  • your current general health, including whether or not you smoke
  • any medications you take
  • your family history
  • your visual needs for daily life, including whether or not you drive

Evaluations may involve physical examinations, imaging tests, functional assessments, or anatomic assessments of the eyes and related areas.

These processes can include:

  • visual acuity tests
  • preliminary tests of visual function and health
  • keratometry or topography, which refers to the measuring of the curvature of your cornea
  • refractive measures to check for any refractive errors that may require the use of glasses
  • evaluation of eye focusing, eye synchronicity, and eye movement
  • evaluation of eye health using microscopes, lenses, and digital technology

Ways to treat sore eyes

If sore eyes do not occur alongside any urgent symptoms, you may be able to soothe sore eyes yourself with at-home remedies.

These can include:

  • using over-the-counter eye drops, gels, or ointments, with the advice of an eye doctor
  • taking rest breaks from the use of digital screens
  • taking out contact lenses, if applicable, and wearing glasses to rest the eyes
  • avoiding touching or rubbing the eyes

You may also be able to clean the area around your eyelids by soaking absorbent cotton or a washcloth in warm, not hot, water and gently pressing around the eye area to wipe away any buildup.

What are the potential complications of sore eyes?

Sore eyes may indicate a more severe underlying condition. Also, because extended irritation of the eye may affect eye health, sore eyes can present complications.

These may include:

  • cellulitis, which is an infection of the deep layer of the skin and tissues
  • further infection of the eye, other bodily systems, or both
  • sepsis, or blood poisoning, wherein bacteria enters the bloodstream
  • scarring
  • permanent vision damage
  • a loss of vision
  • further eye diseases, such as cataracts, glaucoma, or a detached retina

Once an eye doctor has diagnosed the underlying cause, you must follow the treatment plan that they design specifically for you. This can reduce your risk of potential complications.

Summary

Sore eyes are a common complaint that, in some cases, can resolve without clinical treatment or complications.

They can result from everyday causes of irritation, infections, and underlying eye conditions. COVID-19 can also cause sore eyes.

Eye discomfort may be treatable at home, but for more serious symptoms or symptoms that do not go away after a few weeks, you should contact an eye doctor without further delay.

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Medical Reviewer: Jenna Stoddard, OD
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 28
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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.