Burning Eyes: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatments
There are many irritants that can cause the eyes to have a burning sensation. Soaps, moisturizers, sunscreen, chlorine from swimming pools, makeup, shampoos, and cleaners can all cause problems with burning eyes.
Improperly maintained contact lenses or wearing them for too long can also cause the eyes to burn.
There are also environmental causes of burning eyes: Smog, smoke, dust, pollen, mold, and pet dander. Contrary to popular belief, pet allergies are not caused by pet hair but by pet dander, tiny flakes of skin shed by cats and dogs.
Even extreme temperatures can cause burning eyes, such as especially cold, hot, or dry conditions.
Inflammation and infection in the eye can also be perceived as a burning sensation. This can occur with many eye conditions, including blepharitis and pinkeye.
Blepharitis is an inflammation of the eyelids with many possible causes. Pink eye is an infection or inflammation of the conjunctiva or the membrane covering the white part of the eye and the inner eyelids.
Any kind of upper respiratory infection, such as the common cold, can cause burning eyes, along with eye allergies.
Burning Eyes can be Serious
Burning eyes can signal a very serious problem, like uveitis or orbital cellulitis. Both conditions involve infection of the inner eye structures, and both can threaten vision if not treated promptly.
A burning sensation in the eyes is a nonspecific symptom. This means it could have many causes. Only your eye care professional can diagnose the cause of your burning eyes and treat them properly.
Your eye doctor will evaluate your burning eye symptoms and ask you specific questions. This is one way the doctor will look for the cause. For example, burning with itching would indicate (but not necessarily prove in itself) allergies. Burning with a discharge would look more like an infection.
COVID-19 and Burning Eyes
Burning eyes have been recognized as a symptom of COVID-19 infection. In one study, over one-third of Europeans with confirmed COVID infections reported eye symptoms, including burning eyes.
This is not surprising. COVID is a virus primarily attacking the respiratory system.
Although COVID has been proven to cause pink eye or conjunctivitis in some individuals, burning eyes and pink eye caused by COVID are unlikely to occur as a primary or single condition. COVID infection is almost always associated with other symptoms.
However, conjunctivitis or pink eye can definitely cause a burning sensation in the eyes, and when driven by a virus, someone with this type of pink eye may also experience:
-Burning, stinging eyes with redness
-A feeling of something in the eye
-Watery eyes with a clear discharge
-Some light sensitivity
A thick, colored eye discharge would be more indicative of bacterial conjunctivitis. This would not be a strong indicator of a viral type of conjunctivitis, including that sometimes caused by COVID.
If you think you may have symptoms of COVID, especially any difficulty with breathing, call your physician immediately and follow the latest CDC recommendations on quarantine, protecting others from infection, and seeking medical care.
How to Safely Relieve Burning Eyes
Many household products that cause burning eyes can be rinsed from the eye. Consult the product label and follow the directions. Purchase “no-tear” shampoo and lotion for infants and small children too young to understand when to close their eyes during bathing and body care. These products work really well.
You should also purchase saline solutions meant for use in the eyes. Use it to wash out the eyes when needed. It’s better not to use tap water or even bottled water for this purpose.
Both tap and bottled water may contain a microbe called Acanthamoeba. Harmless when ingested, this amoeba can cause a devastating eye infection if instilled directly into the eye, especially among contact lens wearers. Never rinse your contacts with tap or bottled water.
Do not use eye solutions and drops intended for use with contact lenses for flushing out your eyes. Just use plain saline solution labeled for use in the eyes, and lubricating and artificial tears eye drops labeled for general use in the eyes.
If the preservatives in optic saline solutions cause your eyes to burn, there are preservative-free versions available. Ask your eye care professional or pharmacist, to assist you with this.
Sunscreen and Burning Eyes
During the summer months, sunscreen is a must to protect the skin against harmful UV rays from the sun. However, it’s common for this product to get into the eyes, especially when applying it to a squirming toddler.
Sunscreen won’t damage your eyes, but it can be very uncomfortable if it touches the eye’s tissues. You will likely experience significant discomfort, and small children will howl from the burning sensation until it subsides or until it’s washed out.
If you get sunscreen in your eyes, first remove your contacts if you wear them. Next, use lubricating eye drops or artificial tears to rinse out your eyes until the burning sensation improves.
Cold, wet compresses may also help. Keep using the eye drops every 15 to 20 minutes or until the discomfort stops. You will not be able to use contact lenses contaminated by sunscreen again. Dispose of them and use a fresh pair, but only after your eyes have fully recovered.
If you select a daily disposable type of contact lens, you’ll always have a supply of fresh lenses and no complicated cleaning regimens, either. Ask your eye care professional if these are right for you.
Tear-free sunscreen formulations are also available for purchase in specialty and drug stores and online.
Find a Top Eye Doctor Near You
When it comes to the best in eye care, our top-rated doctors offer the best comprehensive vision care and eye health exams and treatment. We know the health care system can be overwhelming, and we want to help you find the best eye health care professional in your area.