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Burning Eyes

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Last updated November 17, 2022

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What are burning eyes?

Burning eyes are when your eyes feel so irritated that they sting or burn.  Usually it happens when something gets in your eye, like dust, mascara, shampoo, or chemicals. It can be from a scratch to the cornea or the clear part of the eye. But it can also happen when your eyes are dry.

It is very treatable and often there isn’t any permanent damage.

What it feels like

Burning eyes feel like there is something in your eyes that is making them sting or burn. Your vision may be affected because the cornea is irritated and not clear. You may also have red eyes and tearing.

Treatment next steps

Burning eyes are usually treated by getting out whatever is irritating your eye, whether it is a foreign object or a chemical like shampoo. You can also relieve the pain by using lubricating eye drops and closing your eyes.

If you frequently have burning eyes, then you may need to see an eye doctor to help you figure out what’s causing the burning.

If there is an infection in the eye that is causing burning or your eyes were exposed to harsh chemicals, then you need to see an ophthalmologist immediately.

Causes

1. Corneal abrasion

A corneal abrasion is a scratch in the cornea. This is usually caused by a minor trauma to the eye, like from a fingernail scratch, mascara wand, or debris from the environment.

Other symptoms:

  • Redness
  • Tearing
  • Decreased vision
  • Light sensitivity

Treatment and urgency: The typical treatment is using artificial tears and resting. But if it might be an infection, then you may be given an antibiotic drop. If it’s a fairly large scratch, then you may need a bandage contact lens from an ophthalmologist.

2. Dry eyes

Dry eyes are also very common. The cornea has several nerve endings, and when it becomes dry, the nerves become painful and can cause burning.

Other symptoms:

  • It can feel like there is “sand” in your eye.
  • Vision may be mildly decreased.

Treatment and urgency:

The main treatment is to keep the eyes lubricated with artificial tears. If this doesn’t help enough, you may need prescription drops to increase tear production. You can also have a procedure where the ophthalmologist places plugs in the tear ducts to slow drainage of tears. If your dry eyes are caused by other conditions, like allergies and autoimmune conditions (like Sjogren’s disease), your care will be focused on treating those conditions.

3. Corneal infection

A corneal infection can be caused by wearing an old contact lens, or showering or sleeping in contact lenses. This is a less common cause of burning eyes, but can be very serious.

Other symptoms

Treatment and urgency: A corneal infection should be evaluated by an ophthalmologist right away. You will likely be given antibiotic drops and they will monitor your eye closely.

4. Chemical burn

Chemical burns are uncommon but can be very painful and serious, if left untreated. Chemical burns can happen from getting household chemicals, like bleach or dishwashing detergent, in the eye. Or it can happen at the workplace if you handle chemicals.

Other symptoms

  • Decreased vision
  • Redness of the eyes

Treatment and urgency: The eyes should be washed out with lots of water immediately and you should go to the emergency room for additional care. They will probably want to be sure the chemical is completely washed out and have the eye checked by an ophthalmologist.

Treatment

  • If your eyes are dry, you can try eye drops like artificial tears. This can help with allergies, dry eyes, or tired eyes. If dry eyes are chronic, you may need prescription drops that increase tear production.
  • If you have an infection in the cornea, you should go to the ER or an ophthalmologist, who will examine you and likely give you antibiotic drops.

FAQs:

Can lack of sleep cause burning eyes?

Lack of sleep can cause dryness in the eyes, which can feel like burning. When we sleep, the eyelids cover the eyeballs and keep the surfaces of the eyes well hydrated. When we don’t sleep, the surface of the eyes get exposed to outside dust, debris, and other particles, which can cause dryness and irritation.

Does COVID cause burning eyes?

The most common ocular (involving the eye) complication of COVID has been conjunctival congestion, or redness in the white part of the eyes. This may or may not cause burning in the eyes. If your cornea is irritated, you’ll likely feel burning.

Share your story
Dr. Agrawal is a board - certified Ophthalmologist and writer for Buoy Health. She received her Bachelor of Science from Vanderbilt University and Medical Degree from the University of Mississippi Medical Center. She completed a medical internship at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, and residency at the University of Chicago. Subsequently, she completed a two year fellowship in surgical retina at the...
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