Burning eyes can be both uncomfortable and concerning. In most cases, burning eyes can be diagnosed quickly and treated with over-the-counter medications. However, there are some rare causes of burning eyes that may require specialized treatment.

In this article, we look at the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of burning eyes.

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Causes

Woman rubbing eyes due to burning eyes
Dry eyes, sunburn, and pterygium can cause a burning sensation.

Stinging or irritation of the eyes is often referred to as burning eyes. Common causes of burning eyes include:

Blepharitis

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Blepharitis is characterized by flaky, dandruff-like skin at the base of the eyelids. It is caused by a bacterial infection. Additional symptoms include eye redness and swelling.

Dry eyes

Dry eyes can result when the tear ducts do not produce enough tears or the right kind of tears. Dry eyes tend to occur more often in women and older people. Additional symptoms can include:

  • pain
  • eye redness
  • heavy-feeling eyelids
  • blurred vision

Eye allergies

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Also known as allergic conjunctivitis, eye allergies occur when irritating substances get into the eye. The body responds to these substances by producing histamines, which can cause burning eyes.

Common triggers of eye allergies include dust, pollen, smoke, perfumes, pet dander, and foods.

Other symptoms of eye allergies include:

  • redness
  • tearing swelling
  • itching of the eyes

Eye sunburn

Overexposure to the ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun’s rays can cause eye sunburn, which is also known as photokeratitis.

In addition to burning eyes, symptoms include:

  • light sensitivity
  • pain
  • a gritty feeling
  • watering
  • halos around lights

Ocular rosacea

Ocular rosacea is a condition that causes inflammation of the eyelids. It affects people who have acnerosacea, a skin condition characterized by redness and flushing on the face.

Additional symptoms of ocular rosacea include:

  • pain
  • light sensitivity
  • vision loss in severe cases

Pterygium

Pterygium is a growth of fleshy tissue on the white part of the eye. It usually occurs nearest to the nose, although it can also appear on the outer portion of the eye. It is thought to be caused by a combination of dry eyes and UV light.

Symptoms include:

  • burning eyes
  • itching
  • redness
  • swelling

In some cases, the growth can extend to cover the cornea, which can affect vision.

Diagnosis

Identifying the underlying cause of burning eyes is important. People experiencing burning eyes should see a doctor as soon as possible.

A doctor will begin to diagnose burning eyes by taking a medical history and asking the person about their symptoms. They will ask questions about when the symptoms started, what makes them worse or better, and if the person has a history of any other conditions affecting the eyes.

A doctor will also review the medications the person is taking. Some medicines, such as decongestants, can contribute to burning eyes.

In addition to taking a medical history, a doctor will also carry out a physical exam of the eyes. They will examine the eyes for signs of irregularities, dryness, and damage. They may use scopes or other specialized equipment to view the eyes more clearly and closely.

Eye doctors may also apply drops to the eyes that allow them to observe the flow of tears and moisture levels in the eyes.

Treatments and home remedies

senior man applying eye drops because of burning eyes
In cases of bacterial infection, a doctor may recommend eye drops.

The treatments for burning eyes will often depend upon the underlying cause. For example, if burning eyes are due to a bacterial infection, a doctor may recommend antibiotic eye drops to treat the infection.

Treatments often aim at reducing eye dryness.

Other interventions a doctor may recommend for burning eyes include:

  • Cleaning the eyelid margins near the base of the eyelashes, using a gentle cleanser and lukewarm water. A person can gently pat the eye dry following cleansing.
  • Applying lubricating eye drops to reduce redness and improve eye comfort. For very dry eyes, a doctor may prescribe lubricating eye drops or artificial tears.
  • Applying a warm compress to the eyes. Make a compress by soaking a clean, soft towel in warm water and then placing it over the eyes.
  • Using antihistamine eye drops or tablets to reduce the effects of allergic reactions in the eyes. These products are available online.
  • Taking supplements such as fish oil and flaxseed. These can help to reduce the effects of dry eyes. They are especially useful for people with ocular rosacea.
  • Drinking plenty of water throughout the day can help to keep the eyes moist and reduce dryness.
  • Taking regular breaks from using a computer screen can help reduce eye dryness and irritation.
  • Wearing sunglasses to protect the eyes from UV light and further irritation.

In rare instances of very dry eyes, a doctor may recommend surgery. Examples of surgery include inserting plugs into the tear ducts to prevent tears draining away from the eyes.

Outlook

While burning eyes can be painful, they are often highly treatable through correcting any underlying causes and reducing eye dryness.

If a person has symptoms such as vision loss, they should see their doctor immediately.