Sore Eyes

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Introduction

What are sore eyes?

Sore eyes are an unpleasant sensation in or around one or both eyes. Your eyes may feel gritty, tender or tired. Sore eyes may be caused by excessive rubbing of the eyes. Airborne irritants, including smoke and smog, as well as other environmental factors, such as exposure to chemicals or even too much sun, can result in sore eyes. Inadequate lubrication of the eye surface by tears, which is frequently called dry eye, is a very common cause of sore eyes.

You may get sore eyes from prolonged close work such as reading or concentrating on a computer screen. An incorrect prescription for eyewear contributes to eye fatigue leading to soreness. Prolonged contact lens wear also causes sore eyes.

Inflammation caused by allergies or infections frequently leads to sore eyes. These conditions may affect only the eyes or they may be systemic (affecting other areas of the body), such as hay fever or the common cold. A frequent cause of eye soreness is conjunctivitis, sometimes called pink eye, which is an inflammation of the membrane that lines your eyelids and covers the whites of the eye.

You may have several other symptoms along with sore eyes, including eye pain, redness, itchiness, swelling, tearing, or discharge from the eyes. Sore eyes without eye pain is a common complaint that usually resolves on its own with rest. Sore eyes accompanied by eye pain and other symptoms, including fever, discharge, redness, sudden vision changes, or eyelids that are red and swollen, should be evaluated by your health care provider. Depending on the underlying cause, your health care provider may advise the use of artificial tears, antihistamines, antibiotics, or simply rest.

In most cases, sore eyes are not serious. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have sore eyes together with eye pain, fever, discharge, redness, sudden vision changes, or eyelids that are red and swollen.

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

Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with sore eyes?

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

Ocular symptoms that may occur along with sore eyes

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

Other symptoms that may occur along with sore eyes

Sore eyes may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, sore eyes may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition which should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have sore eyes along with other serious symptoms including:

  • Bleeding from the eyes
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Eyelids that are tight, swollen, and red or purple
  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Severe headache
  • Sudden changes of vision, loss of vision, or eye pain
  • Vomiting
Causes

What causes sore eyes?

Many conditions can cause sore eyes, including physical irritation from excessive rubbing, prolonged contact lens wear, smoke or smog, exposure to chemicals, or even too much sun. Inadequate lubrication of the eye surface by tears (frequently called dry eye) is a very common cause of sore eyes.

Other causes of sore eyes include prolonged close work, an incorrect prescription for eyewear, or prolonged contact lens wear.

Inflammation caused by allergies or infections also frequently leads to sore eyes.

Everyday causes of sore eyes

Sore eyes may be caused by everyday activities including:

  • Contact lens wear

  • Excessive rubbing of the eyes

  • Incorrect eyewear (glasses or contact lenses)

  • Exposure to environmental irritants, such as smoke, smog or dust

  • Prolonged work at a computer screen

Inflammatory causes of sore eyes

Sore eyes can also be caused by inflammation resulting from allergy or infection including:

  • Blepharitis (inflammation of the eyelid margin)

  • Chronic dry eye

  • Common cold (viral respiratory infection)

  • Conjunctivitis (inflammation of the eye surface)

  • 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 serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These conditions include:

  • Acute glaucoma

  • Infectious keratitis (corneal ulcer)

  • Optic neuritis

  • Orbital cellulitis (invasive infection of the soft tissues around the eye)

  • Uveitis and iritis (inflammation of the structures of the eye)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of sore eyes

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

  • When did you first experience sore eyes?

  • Where do you feel the soreness? Is it one or both eyes?

  • Do you wear contact lenses?

  • Do you use prescription eyeglasses?

  • Have you had recent eye surgery?

  • Is your eyewear prescription up-to-date?

  • Do you feel burning or throbbing in your eye?

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

What are the potential complications of sore eyes?

Sore eyes without eye pain is a common complaint that will generally resolve on its own without complications. In some cases, sore eyes that are accompanied by eye pain and other symptoms may indicate a more serious condition that should be evaluated by your health care provider. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Corneal scarring
  • Spread of infection
  • Vision disturbances or loss
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Dec 28
  1. Eye problems. FamilyDoctor.org. http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/tools/symptom/505.html.
  2. Eye pain. MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003032.htm.
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