5 causes of itchy eyes and how to treat each one

Itchy eyes
If your eyes are dry, try artificial tears or lubricating eye drops. ProfessionalStudioImages/Getty Images
  • Itchy eyes can be caused by a number of reasons including dry eye and certain infections.
  • It could also be the result of contact lenses that are ill-fitting or overused.
  • If your itchy eyes are accompanied by sneezing or a runny nose, then you may have allergies.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

While itchy eyes aren’t usually an indication of a serious problem, they can certainly be annoying and affect your day-to-day life.

If you have itchy eyes, it’s important to identify the cause so you can properly treat them and prevent future itching. Here are five causes of itchy eyes and how to treat them.

1. Dry eyes

If your eyes are itchy and uncomfortable, you may have dry eyes. Dry eye is a very common condition, affecting around 16 million Americans.

It happens when your eyes either don’t produce enough tears or because the tears evaporate too quickly, which can result in itchy uncomfortable eyes, says Vicente Diaz, MD, an ophthalmologist at Yale Medicine and assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine.

There are various potential causes for dry eyes, says Ashley Brissette, MD, MSc, an ophthalmologist at Weill Cornell Medicine. She says a few common culprits are:

  • Too much screen time
  • Aging
  • Dry air/low humidity
  • Wearing contacts
  • Hormonal changes (in women)

How to treat it:

The first line of action is to try out some over-the-counter eye drops, says Diaz, such as artificial tears or lubricating eye drops. However, if these don’t help, he says you may need to see your doctor for prescription-strength eye drops to decrease inflammation and improve your own tear production.

Additionally, on top of addressing the symptom of itchiness, you should also address the root cause, if possible, Brissette says. For example, reducing screen time, using a humidifier, or changing the type of contacts you wear.

2. Allergies

Allergies are extremely common affecting roughly 50 million Americans. Amongst other symptoms like sneezing or a runny nose, allergies can cause itchy, irritated eyes.

This happens because your immune system thinks the allergen is a dangerous threat, so it releases a chemical called histamine. Histamine triggers inflammation, which can cause an allergic reaction.

Related Article Module: How to manage your seasonal allergiesAllergies may be seasonal or year-round, and they can be due to indoor or outdoor triggers. Brissette says some very common allergens are:

  • Pollen
  • Dust
  • Pet dander

How to treat it:

You can take a few steps to treat allergic itchy eyes:

  1. Diaz recommends initially trying artificial tears, since they can help to physically flush the allergens from the eye.
  2. If you’re still uncomfortable, he says you can use an antihistamine eye drop, which are eye drops specifically for allergies. These may be over-the-counter or prescription.
  3. If you’re experiencing any swelling in addition to itching, you can try relieving it by placing a cold compress on the affected eye.

You can also take preventative action to stop the itchy eyes before they start. Brissette recommends getting an allergy test from your doctor to determine what you are allergic to so that you know what to avoid.

3. Contact lens use

While contacts are safe to use, they can cause discomfort. “A contact lens is a foreign body. So, like any foreign object, the body can start to reject it if it is in place for too long,” says Diaz.

This is due to the fact that the cornea, the outermost layer of the eye, needs oxygen. “Our eyes get their oxygen from the environment, and when you’re wearing a contact lens for extended periods of time, it can lead to irritation and oxygen deprivation on the surface of the eye,” says Brissette.

She says this oxygen deprivation leads to inflammation, dryness, and itchiness.

How to treat it:

You don’t need to stop contact use altogether to experience relief. Brisette recommends the following tips for less irritating contact use:

  • Use contact lens rewetting drops (available over-the-counter)
  • Visit your eye doctor to ensure that your lenses fit properly and are not too tight on the eyes
  • Take breaks from wearing contacts by switching to glasses when you can
  • Use daily disposable contacts rather than reusable ones, since they typically have higher oxygen permeability, meaning oxygen can better pass through them, lessening your chance of dry eye, and therefore, itchiness.

4. Infections

There are various ways that the eyes can become infected. “There can be overgrowth of normal bacteria, which then causes inflammation. Or, there could be contamination with other bacteria or viruses,” says Diaz.

If you have an infection, you’ll likely experience other symptoms alongside itching, says Brissette. Conjunctivitis, AKA pink eye, is the most common type of eye infection and causes symptoms like itching, discharge, a gritty sensation, and redness.

Bacterial infections can also cause itchy eyes. Some examples are:

  • Keratitis
  • Cellulitis
  • Endophthalmitis

How to treat it:

It’s important to practice good hygiene – like not touching your eyes and frequently washing your hands – to prevent spreading the infection to others, Diaz says.

You may also need to be prescribed anti-inflammatory medications or antibiotics, depending on the type of eye infection you have. Be sure to see a doctor to get a proper diagnosis and treatment if you think you have an infection.

Additionally, Brissette recommends washing your pillowcases, towels, and anything else that’s come into contact with your eyes, and throwing out eye makeup or makeup brushes that you’ve recently used, as it may be contaminated.

5. Blepharitis

Blepharitis refers to inflammation of the eyelids, particularly around the edges, and it affects roughly 82 million people in the US.

Diaz says healthy eyelids are essential to eye comfort, so if your eyelids are inflamed, you’ll likely experience discomfort.

It can be caused by clogged glands in your eyelids, skin conditions like rosacea or seborrheic dermatitis, infection, allergies, or dry eyes.

The condition causes symptoms like itchiness, burning, swollen and red eyelids, and flaky or crusty skin around the eyes.

How to treat it:

Blepharitis is treatable with mostly at-home self-care. Diaz recommends using a warm compress on your eyes to help those glands stay healthy and keep them flowing.

Additionally, Brissette says it’s crucial to keep your eyes clean to remove debris, crusts, and excess bacteria. You can purchase specialized eye washes, or even use a bit of diluted baby shampoo to gently clean the area, says Brissette.

In more severe cases of blepharitis, you may need to be prescribed anti-inflammatory steroid eye drops, or antibiotics if it’s caused by a bacterial infection.

Insider’s takeaway

Although what’s causing your itchy eyes is likely not dangerous, the sensation is a hindrance. It’s important to determine the root cause of your issue so you can address that, as well as treat your symptoms for relief.

In general, Brissette stresses the importance of taking care of your eyes the same way you take care of the rest of your body.

“It’s actually really important to be washing around your eyelids and lashes daily, just like you brush your teeth every day to keep them clean,” she says. This ensures that you don’t get a buildup of debris, allergens, pollution, or makeup around your eyes which can lead to further problems.

If good eye hygiene and over-the-counter products aren’t fixing your itchy eyes, see an ophthalmologist.

The 4 best vitamins for eye health and which foods – besides carrots – may improve vision6 ways to improve eyesight naturally and protect your visionHow to put in eye drops correctly, in 2 different ways3 ways you can treat pink eye without a doctor’s appointment