Itchy Eyes: 10 Common Causes & What to Do

Updated in August 2023

Itchy eyes can occur with allergies to dust, smoke, pollen or fur, as well as with contact lens use or ocular fatigue. This symptom can also be associated with eye inflammation or infections, like conjunctivitis, meibomitis, styes or ocular herpes. 

Depending on the cause, itchy eyes can appear with symptoms like swelling, redness, burning, increased light sensitivity, decreased vision, tearing eye or headache. 

It is important to consult and ophthalmologist if you have itchy eyes, so that the doctor can identify the underlying cause and initiate appropriate treatment. The doctor may recommend corrective lenses, artificial tears or other medications. 

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What causes itchy eyes?

The main causes of itchy eyes include: 

1. Allergies 

Itchiness is almost always related to allergies, either to food or environmental factors, like dust, fur, and smoke. These cases are often referred to as allergic conjunctivitis. 

Normally, allergies are easily picked-up on, as eye itchiness tends to emerge after direct contact with a specific trigger. Other common symptoms of allergies include red eyes, tearing, the sensation of sand in the eyes, runny or stuffy nose, and constant sneezing. 

It is common for allergy-related itchy eyes to occur in the spring and summer, as these times of years are associated with more allergens in the air. 

What to do: Avoid contact with triggering substances, once the allergen has been identified. You can relieve itchiness with hydrating eye drops, as prescribed by a doctor. 

2. Dry eye syndrome

Dry eye syndrome is a chronic eye condition that occurs due to a decreased production of tears, or due to excessive tear evaporation. Tears are important for lubricating the eyeball, and a lack of tears can lead to other symptoms like itchiness, redness, burning, the sensation of something in the eyes, light sensitivity and blurred vision.  

Also referred to keratoconjuncitivitis sicca, dry eye syndrome is most frequent in older adults due to normal age-related changed. It can also occur with menopause or other health conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis, Sjrogen’s syndrome, lupus or blepharitis. 

In addition, this eye condition can occur in people who spend prolonged periods on a computer or phone, people who work in very dry, air-conditioned environments, people who use contact lenses incorrectly, or in those who take certain medications, like antihistamines or birth control. 

What to do: It is important to keep the eye lubricated, which can be done by using artificial tears and eye drops prescribed by your doctor. These can help prevent dryness and other related symptoms. For symptoms caused by prolonged periods on a computer, you should aim to blink frequently to prevent irritation and dryness.  

3. Ocular fatigue 

Ocular fatigue occurs due to excessive straining of the eye muscles when focusing on a computer, tablet or cellphone screen. It can cause tired eyes and lead to itchiness. 

Ocular fatigue, or asthenopia, can also cause eye heaviness, eye irritation, frequent headaches, light sensitivity, difficulty concentrating and generalized fatigue. 

What to do: It is important to take frequently breaks from electronic devices to rest your eyes. You should also look at an object 6 meters away from your screen for 40 seconds, every 40 minutes. You can also use prescription glasses to reduce straining, as well as special blue-light blocking glasses.

4. Sty

A sty is an inflammation of a small gland in the eyelid, like the gland of Zeis, Moll’s gland or meibomian gland. It leads to a small bump on the eyelid, as well as symptoms like itchy eyes, tearing, pain, swelling or redness. 

A sty, or hoderolum, mainly develops due to a bacterial infection, seborrheic dermatitis, acne or chronic blepharitis. Learn more about the symptoms of a sty and what can cause one to appear. 

What to do: A sty usually disappears on its own after 3 to 5 days without any specific treatment. You can apply warm compresses to the affected eye to help relieve swelling and other symptoms. If the sty does not improve, you should see and ophthalmologist, who may indicate treatment with antibiotic ointment or eye drops. 

5. Blepharitis

Blepharitis is an eyelid inflammation that occurs due to changes in the meibomian gland. These glands are responsible for keeping the eye moist, and abnormalities can lead to crusting around the eye, itching, eye redness, eyelid swelling, and tearing. These symptoms can emerge suddenly, from one day to the other. 

What to do: Treatment for blepharitis is guided by an ophthalmologist, who may recommend warm compresses for 3 minutes, 3 times per day. You should also cleanse your eyes with prescription eye drops. In some cases, especially when blepharitis is recurrent, the doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory or antibiotic ointments for the eye.   

6. Contact lens use

Using contact lenses can also cause itchy eyes, especially when the lenses are not properly cleaned. Lens use is associated with an increased risk for bacteria, virus or fungus in the eyes, which can lead to inflammation and infection, as well as symptoms like pain, redness and crusting. 

In more serious cases, contact lenses can even lead to eye ulcers or intense corneal inflammation.

What to do: Treatment for inflammation or infections related to contaminated lenses should be guided by an ophthalmoloigst. Treatment approaches will depend on the type of infection present. The doctor will likely go over proper lens cleaning practices to prevent future infections.

7. Conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the membrane that lines the eyes and eyelids (conjunctiva). Swelling can happen with viral, fungal or bacterial infections, and leads to symptoms like intense itchiness, pain, swelling, redness and crusting. 

Conjunctivitis can be easily transmitted from person to person with direct contact with eye discharge or contaminated objects. It can also occur with allergies to dust, pollen, fur or mites. 

What to do: You should consult an ophthalmologist for the most appropriate treatment, which will depend on the underlying cause of conjunctivitis. To prevent transmitting this condition, you should avoid scratching your eyes and sharing objects with others. Frequent hand hygiene is also advised.  

8. Meibomitis

Meibomitis is a small, red painful bump that can appear on the eyelid. It usually as a yellow pinpoint in the middle, similar to a pimple, and can cause itchiness, pain, swelling, redness, the sensation of something in the eyes or blurry vision.

Meibomitis is associated with inflammation or infection of the meibomian glands, located in the upper and lower eyelids. These glands are responsible for producing oil that lubricates the eyes and prevents tears from quickly evaporating. 

This condition can occur with contact lens use, dry environments, hormonal changes or rosacea. 

What to do: Treatment for meibomitis should be guided by an ophthalmologist, and will depend on the severity of symptoms. The doctor may recommend warm compresses to the affected eye, lubricating eye drops, corticosteroid or antibiotic eye drops, or, in severe cases, surgery.  

9. Ocular herpes

Ocular herpes is an infection caused by herpes simplex type 1. It can affect one or both eyes and lead to symptoms similar to conjunctivitis, like itchy eyes, tearing, swelling, redness, irritation, blurry vision, and lesions or ulcers close to the eye. These lesions tend to be red and contain fluid.

Ocular herpes is contagious and is easily transmitted through direct contact with herpes lesions, whether from the eye or around the mouth. 

What to do: You should consult an ophthalmologist as quickly as possible, as prompt treatment is important for preventing complications, like blindness. Generally, the doctor will recommend antiviral or corticosteroid ointments or eyedrops, as well as oral antivirals or antibiotics. 

10. Periocular dermatitis

Itchy eyes can also be caused by periocular dermatitis, which is a skin disorder that leads to inflammation of the skin around the eyes or eyelids. It is associated with symptoms like itchiness, redness, swelling and burning. 

Periocular dermatitis can occur due to makeup allergies and pollen or food allergies. It is most common in those with a history of contact dermatitis or atopic dermatitis, but it can also occur with seborreic dermatitis, rosacea or psoriasis. 

What to do: It is important to identify what triggers irritation and prevent contact with it when possible. The doctor may advise cold compresses with relieve swelling and redness, as well as prescription medication like corticosteroid ointments or pills.