Most of us have experienced bloodshot or red eyes. Red eyes often happen during hay fever season, after being around cigarette smoke or after a swim in a chlorinated pool.
The eyes can look gross, with pink or red streaks in the sclera, which is usually white. They can also feel uncomfortable, itchy or watery. The redness happens when tiny blood vessels under the eye’s surface get dilated or inflamed. This is usually a response to external irritation.
Many cases of red eye are harmless and respond well to home or over-the-counter treatments. The best thing you can do is find what’s causing the red eye, and avoid it. But some causes of red eye require medical diagnosis and prescription medication.
So, if your eyes are bloodshot or red, what should you do? What can you do at home, and when should you see a doctor?
Brenda Pagán-Duran, MD, an ophthalmologist in New Jersey, has a few tips to help you decide.
You should see a doctor if you have bloodshot eyes and:
Your eyes are seeping or encrusted with yellow, brown or green mucous, see a doctor as soon as you can. This can be a sign of infection that needs medical treatment.
You are experiencing pain in or around your eyes or unusual tenderness.
You have unusual sensitivity to light.
You have a fever or overall sickness.
Redness or discomfort lasts more than a week, after you’re tried home remedies.
Your child has been exposed to pink eye (conjunctivitis) at school or at camp.
If you have bloodshot eyes, but none of these more serious symptoms, you can try a few things at home to help.
Home treatments for bloodshot eyes include:
Using over-the-counter artificial tears
Using over-the-counter antihistamine eye drops, especially if you are prone to seasonal allergies
Using over-the-counter antihistamine eye drops with a steroid—if you’ve been previously diagnosed with red eyes due to allergies
Placing cool compresses or washcloths on your closed eyes a couple of times a day
Avoiding triggers or irritants such as smoke, fumes, pollen, dust, chlorine or pet dander
Washing your hands often, not touching your eyes unless you’ve just washed your hands, and using clean bedding and towels daily.
If home remedies don’t help after about a week, you could have an eye infection. Two main kinds of infection cause red eyes — viral and bacterial. Fungal eye infections are less common, but possible.
Pink eye (conjunctivitis) can be viral or bacterial. It’s important to get a diagnosis from a doctor, because treatments differ based on the kind of infection.
“I understand some people feeling this is just allergies or a virus and if I wait this will go away. But if you get other associated symptoms and it’s been a week, you want to make sure other things aren’t going on,” Dr. Pagán-Duran said.
Viral eye infections, the most common kind, tend to improve on their own, and don’t require prescription medication. Bacterial eye infections require antibiotics. Both types of infection are contagious and spread easily.
Family physicians or pediatricians can diagnosis most eye infections. Ophthalmologists have the tools and expertise for a more-detailed evaluation.