There are many eye diseases that can increase your risk of vision loss or even blindness. Then there are conditions that—while possibly painful and annoying—are not usually a threat to your vision.
But your eye health is too important to ever take for granted. If you suspect you may have conjunctivitis (better known as pink eye), chronic dry eyes or blepharitis (eyelid inflammation), consider consulting your primary care provider. In some cases, these problems may be treated with simple interventions; in other cases, they may be serious enough to warrant a trip to your eyecare provider. Accurate diagnosis and treatment is essential to resolve symptoms and keep your eyes healthy.
What it is: Conjunctivitis (also known as pink eye) results from an infection or an allergic reaction. Pink eye is very common and affects up to six million adults and children each year.
When you have conjunctivitis, the conjunctiva -- the thin colorless membrane that covers the whites of your eyeball -- becomes red and irritated.
There are three types of conjunctivitis, with three different causes: viral, bacterial and allergic.
What it feels like: Conjunctivitis symptoms are similar regardless of whether it’s caused by a virus, bacteria or an allergic reaction. The condition can affect one or both eyes. Common symptoms include:
- Swollen, red, puffy eyes
- Discharge ranging from watery to thick
- Eyelids that feel crusty or stuck together when you wake up
- Burning, itching or irritation
- Feeling like you have a piece of dirt or dust in your eye
How to prevent it: Bacterial and viral conjunctivitis are easily transmitted from one eye to the other—and to other people. To avoid spreading it, take precautions such as:
- Wash your hands thoroughly before and after touching your eyes
- Do not share towels, washcloths or eye makeup
- If you wear contacts, throw away your current pair and replace your existing contact lens solution
- Do not use contact lenses during an active infection
How to treat it: In most cases, conjunctivitis goes away on its own within a week or two. To relieve symptoms, stop wearing contacts, use artificial tears, wash your hands often, and apply a cold compress to your eyes several times a day.
If your symptoms are interfering with your vision or if they last more than two weeks, consider getting in touch with your healthcare provider. If you have bacterial conjunctivitis, your provider may prescribe antibiotic eye drops.
What it is: Dry eyes affect millions of Americans, and the condition becomes more prevalent with age. It occurs when your eyes don’t make enough tears, or the tears they make aren’t able to sufficiently moisturize and protect your eyes.
What it feels like: If you have chronically dry eyes, your eyes will feel irritated—which can make it especially difficult to wear contact lenses. Other symptoms of dry eyes include:
- Stinging or burning
- Excessive watering of your eyes
- Sensitivity to light
- Blurry vision
What causes it: Women are more likely to get dry eyes, sometimes due to hormonal changes. Tear production also naturally decreases with age, making dry eyes more common for all genders after age 50.
Other factors that contribute to dry eyes include:
How to treat it: Your eyecare provider may recommend a variety of strategies to improve tear production and lubricate your eyes, including but not limited to:
- Using a humidifier to increase indoor humidity in your home
- Supplementing your natural tear production with over-the-counter lubricating eye drops
- Prescribing anti-inflammatory eye drops such as Restasis
- Plugging up your tear ducts: Your eyecare provider can insert tiny silicone plugs (called punctal plugs) into your tear ducts to block tears from draining. This way, tears stay on the surface of your eyes longer and help to keep them moisturized.
What it is: Blepharitis is an inflammation of the eyelids — it’s especially common in people who have oily skin, rosacea or dandruff. The condition is chronic, meaning there is no permanent cure.
What it feels like: This condition most often affects both eyes. Your eyes may be red, irritated and swollen. They may burn, itch or sting. Sometimes, the condition also leads to flaky skin or crust forming on your eyelids and in your lashes. In more severe cases, blepharitis can lead to eyelid swelling, blurry vision, loss of eyelashes, and damage to other parts of your eye.
What causes it: Blepharitis has many different causes. One of the most common is a buildup of bacteria (e.g. staphylococcus) at the bases of your eyelashes. Additionally, excess oil and flaky skin can also block and clog up your eyelid’s oil glands, leading to inflammation.
How to treat it: Left untreated, the swollen and clogged oil glands can lead to other problems—including styes, dry eyes and corneal damage. While you can’t cure blepharitis, you can take steps to manage the condition, such as:
- Antibiotic drops or ointment to treat bacteria
- Treating conditions (such as rosacea and dandruff) that contribute to blepharitis
- Gently washing your eyelids daily
- Using a warm compress to unclog oil glands
QE Perspective: Regular eyecare is the key to preventing common eye problems and effectively treating them. Be sure to take your eye health seriously and see your provider as needed.Quickly addressing any issues that come up is essential to keeping your eyes healthy for life.
CDC on Conjunctivitis
American Academy of Ophthalmology on Conjunctivis
American Academy of Ophthalmology on Blepharitis
American Optometric Association
National Eye Institute
NEI on Dry Eye