Reasons for eye burning and watering and how to treat it 

Are you experiencing burning and irritating sensations in your eyes? One out of the many listed in this article is probably the reason your eyes are hurting and tearing badly. 

A man having painful, burning eyes, redness and itching

You are not alone if you experience itchiness, soreness, and irritation in your eyes. Many people experience this at some point. 

Sometimes, such eye discomfort is accompanied by painful, watery eyes, making you want to scratch your eyes or sink them in ice. It may even affect your everyday activities.

Burning eyes come with different levels of discomfort for different people. But the good news is that they are usually not serious and often don’t require you to visit the ER!

You might have thought erroneously about burning eyes and what causes them. So, let’s see what health experts have to say.

“Burning sensation in the eyes is a very common problem that increases with age. Virtually everyone will experience this at some point in their life," Christopher Clark O.D., Ph.D., lecturer at Indiana University Bloomington, tells SemicHealth. 

Since many people do not understand why their eyes are itching and blazing hot sometimes, we wrote this article that sheds light on the different environmental, health, and situational factors that can cause eye burning and itching. 

Environmental factors that can cause eyes burning

The following are different environmental factors that could cause burning eyes.

1. Your room temperature

If you stay in a place with low humidity, you will notice your skin drying out. But, it’s not just your skin that it can affect; your eyes too may feel the effect. Low humidity is when the amount of moisture in the air is small. According to Dr. Clark, this is one of the most common environmental factors that can cause dry eyes. 

“When the humidity gets low, tears evaporate faster, leading to a burning sensation,” Dr. Clark says.

Things like weather and everyday tasks you perform, such as cooking, washing, and cleaning, can affect the amount of moisture in the air. Dry air “is most commonly experienced during heavy furnace or air conditioner use, as both drive humidity out of our homes,” Dr. Clark explains.

To deal with this situation, you can use a humidifier and ensure your AC is not in dry mode. If dry eyes persist, do not panic. Your doctor may suggest eye ointments and other ways to add moisture to your eyes to help them get back to normal.

2. Photokeratitis

Is it possible to get sunburn in your eyes? An eye sunburn is perhaps the best explanation for photokeratitis. 

When your eyes get exposed to too much UV light, they can become painful, watery, red, and overly sensitive to light. It can also cause blurry vision and swollen eyelids. Your initial reaction to these symptoms may be fear and worry, which is understandable.

But, luckily, photokeratitis symptoms tend to resolve on their own, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). But, you will still need treatment that focuses on making you feel better while you heal. 

Pain relief medications and eye drops could be helpful here to ease symptoms and get the eyes more comfortable while they recover.

3. Not protecting your eyes when cutting onions

When it comes to environmental factors that can cause eye burning, “the most common thing everyone has experienced is cutting onions,” Dr. Clark says. “The sulfur in the onion fumes mixes with your human tears to create sulfuric acid.” This is true for a wide range of chemicals. 

To help prevent your eyes from tearing and causing blurred vision, AAO suggests you chill your onions before chopping, ensure you ventilate your kitchen, and put on onion goggles.

Health Conditions that can cause eye burn

Burning eyes may be a symptom of the different medical conditions discussed below.

4. Dry eyes

Some people have the ability to hold back tears, while for others, their lacrimal glands cannot produce enough tears, causing dry eyes. Aging, certain medications, and medical conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome are some of the causes of poor-quality tears or decreased tear production.

Dry eyes can feel uncomfortable and may cause your eyes to sting and burn. Some people experience it in certain situations, such as when riding a bike or in a room with an air conditioner. 

Treatments that include the use of eye drops, a humidifier, and glasses may help ease your symptoms.

5. Blepharitis

Patients diagnosed with blepharitis often describe burning, itching, and crusting of the eyelids, according to a 2022 study.

Blepharitis is the inflammation of the eyelids. They usually happen when oil glands near the base of the eyelids get clogged up. This makes the eyelid look irritated, swollen, and red. Other common symptoms of blepharitis include:

  • Watery eyes
  • Stinging or burning sensation in the eyes
  • Frequent blinking
  • Blurred vision
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Crusty dandruff-like flakes on the eyelashes

Blepharitis often doesn’t cause permanent damage to the eyes but may not go away completely. Keeping your eyelids clean and free of dandruff-like flakes is often the first step in treating blepharitis. However, depending on the underlying cause, your doctor may recommend medicine or eye drops. 

6. Thyroid diseases

You may say the thyroid gland is located in front of the neck and is in no way connected to the pain you feel in your eyes - You are wrong. 

Thyroid diseases can cause dry eyes and other eye symptoms (such as red and watery eyes) when thyroid antibodies cause your body’s immune system to attack the muscles and tissues around the eyes. 

Your doctor may tell you to use steroids, lubricating eye drops, glasses with prisms, or a cold compress to make your eyes feel better and help you see better.

7. Allergies

“Allergies are usually associated with itching and burning,” says Dr. Clark. This scenario is common when a person’s eyes come into contact with an allergen (a substance that causes your immune system to overreact). This condition is known as allergic conjunctivitis (similar to pink eye). 

It typically occurs when your body overreacts to an otherwise harmless substance. In a mistaken attempt to protect you, your immune system makes antibodies that move to different cells in your body and cause them to release chemicals. The chemicals can ultimately cause an allergic reaction, which, in turn, might leave you with blazing eyes.

Treatment for allergic conjunctivitis may include over-the-counter medicines, saline eye drops, prescription medications, and allergy shots, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA).

8. Rheumatoid arthritis

Dry eye is one of the most common eye-related symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid is another condition where your body’s immune system attacks its own cells. 

In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks the tissues lining the joints, causing pain, redness, and swelling in and around the joints.

The connective tissues of the joints consist of collagen, also found in the eyes. When the body's immune system attacks the connective tissue, it sets off an inflammatory response that can stop the tear glands from making tears and cause redness, blurred vision, and pain. 

It is often best to treat the underlying condition. So, let your doctor take care of you so you can get permanent relief from your eye issue. Your doctor may tell you to use eye drops, eye lubricants, and warm compresses for quick relief. 

9. Corneal Ulcer

A corneal ulcer is also a possible cause of burning eyes. Corneal ulcer is one of the most common types of ulcers. An eye infection from small scratches or injuries can cause a person to develop this eye problem. 

In addition, sleeping with your eyelids open, and having weak eyelids that do not cover your eyes properly, as seen in Bell's palsy or thyroid eye disease, can expose your cornea to injury.

If you have a corneal ulcer, you may have the nagging feeling that something is in your eyes. And because it is an open sore in the cornea, you may experience severe pain, a red, watery, bloodshot eye, and pus discharge from the eye. 

Don’t hesitate to see your eye doctor if you experience any of these. It’s a medical emergency, and home remedies may not be the best option. 

10. COVID-19

There is a long list of symptoms that COVID can cause. Eye burning is one such symptom. However, it is relatively rare. 

COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which enters the body cells through an enzyme called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), found in the lungs, blood vessels, heart, gastrointestinal tract, and eye membrane. Experts believed that when the virus enters the eyes through this enzyme, it can lead to unpleasant symptoms in the eyes. 

According to a study published in the Journal of Ophthalmic and Vision Research, eight out of 932 COVID patients with eye-related symptoms reported burning. Other symptoms reported include irritation, grittiness, itching, redness, discharge, and irritation. 

You should talk to your doctor about the symptoms you experience, including those that affect your eyes.

11. Pterygium

Have you noticed some people have a yellowish, fleshy growth on the whitish part of their eyes? This can happen to anyone, but it is more common in people who spend a lot of time outside without wearing eye protection. 

When a noncancerous tissue overgrows into the white part of your eyes (your doctor will call this pterygium), it can cause eye burning. 

If you have pterygium, you may not notice any symptoms initially, but with time, it may start presenting symptoms like dry, burning, and itchy eyes, teary eyes, and red, swollen, or irritated eyes. 

You will most likely not need treatment if the condition is not affecting your vision. However, consult your doctor so they can recommend for you ointments, steroid drops, or artificial drops to reduce the burning, redness, and itchiness. 

Situational causes of eyes burning

There are certain situations that can predispose to burning eyes, such as:

12. Your make-up

Look good with make-up, but remember to look out for your eyes too. This is because your eyes are pretty sensitive, so a ton of different things, like your face wash, makeup, and moisturizer, can affect them.

If you also like fixing eyelashes, you should do that with caution as using glue and other materials on the eye can be dangerous. While eyelash extensions may look appealing, they can predispose one to allergic reactions, eye infections, and other serious eye complications, which may be accompanied by eye burning.

If you experience a mild burning sensation after applying makeup like mascara, you may want to cut it off from your make-up kit and observe your eyes for a while.

If the situation doesn’t get any better and you can’t figure out what is causing your eye discomfort, you should try to see your doctor for medical help.

13. Foreign particles stuck in your eyes

People face a lot of hazards every day. It's not unusual for something foreign to suddenly get into the eyes and make them red and burn. This could happen when you are outdoors or cleaning the house.

“A burning sensation in the eyes can be triggered by foreign particles such as a speck of dust or sand rubbing the eyes’ surface. This often happens when cleaning the house or spending time outdoors during the dry season, "Chioma Ezeaguka, OD, Senior Optometrist at Clinique Ophthamologique Lumiere Divine, tells SemicHealth. 

Most of the time, people can easily take the debris out of their eyes, but be careful not to scratch the cornea while doing it. If it is a sharp object, it may need emergency care to be taken out. 

Overall, avoid rubbing your eyes or using sharp objects on your eyes. Seek medical care, especially if you notice there is little or nothing you can do. 

14. Exposure to chemicals

Chemical exposure can injure the eyes, leading to eye burning. If you work in a company prone to chemical hazards, you must always keep your eyes protected at all times.

Chemicals can hurt your eyes at work, especially in factories, or at home when you use everyday products. “Eye contact with chemicals like shampoos, perfumes, chlorinated water, or cigarette smoke can also lead to eye irritation and burning eyes,” Dr. Ezeaguka explained. 

Depending on which chemical you exposed your eyes to, flushing your eyes out with cool water may help ease the burning sensation. 

If the burn is severe, call for help so you can get medical care right away. If you don’t treat chemical eye burns immediately, they may cause further complications such as damage to the retina, loss of eye/vision, cataracts, and glaucoma. 

15. Stress and lack of sleep

Some days, you may experience unexplainable symptoms such as eye burning, and you wonder why. You might even wake up with your eyes burning and tearing.

Dr. Ezeakuga highlights a common possible reason that most people tend to ignore, “lack of sleep can lead to burning eyes. Shortage of sleep can lead to dry eyes due to inadequate lubrication of the eyes”. She says.

“Also, your eyes can burn due to stress and fatigue (typically called eyestrain). This is common but rarely severe." 

People with anxiety, depression, and stress are more likely to experience dry eye problems, a 2015 research showed. Your eyes burn when you are tired because of overuse, such as when reading for a long period of time.

When eye strain occurs, you may feel what can be described as eye pain, itching, redness, watery eyes, and blurry vision. In a situation like this, the need to get proper quality sleep and destress cannot be overemphasized. 

Why you wake up with burning eyes

You may have woken up on some days wondering what happened at night. “Why were my eyes burning when I woke up?” 

Your eyes didn’t just start burning out of nowhere. There is a wide range of reasons people may wake up with burning eyes; most are relatively low-risk related to dry eyes.

“We do not produce tears while we are sleeping. Also, some people do not completely close their eyes while sleeping. In either case, the lack of lubrication from tears can cause a painful and burning sensation when you wake up," Dr. Clark explains. 

So, when you wake up with your eyes hurting and blazing hot, do not panic. You may have woken up with burning eyes because your eyes didn’t produce enough moisture while you were asleep. However, if the pain and discomfort continue, you should try to see your eye doctor.

Complications that can result from untreated eye burning

Most times, the burning sensation is a mild symptom that can resolve on its own. But, in some cases, it could lead to further complications. 

Complications of untreated burning eyes vary depending on the cause. For instance, “Burning eyes caused by dry eyes may lead to inadequate tear production, thereby increasing the chances of eye infections and damage to the surface of the eyes called the cornea,” Dr. Ezeaguka explained.

“Dry eyes can also lead to allergic conjunctivitis, which affects a person’s quality of life.” 

 If left untreated, eye-burning complications can range from mild ocular discomfort to severe visual impairment. 

Also, the eyes are vulnerable to sunburn from too much exposure to UV rays, just like the skin. In the long run, severe conditions such as cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, and eyelid cancer may also occur. 

Home remedies for burning and itchy eyes

Burning eyes can cause intense pain, but the most common causes and symptoms can be treated at home. For quick relief from burning eyes, Dr. Ezeaguka suggests that the following home remedies may help: 

  • Rinse your eyes with warm water to remove any allergies or irritants that cause the burning sensations.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking more water to increase eye moisture and reduce dry eyes.
  • Reduce screen time, as looking at a screen for long can cause digital eyestrain and, consequently, eye burning and irritation.
  • Apply a warm or cold compress over your eyes for some minutes a day to reduce the burning sensation.
  • In case of allergies, try to avoid the cause as much as possible. 
  • Wear sunglasses or UV-blocking glasses to protect your eyes from the sun and wind. 

You can also practice the 20/20/20 rule: every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds.

There are tonnes of home remedies online. However, it is best not to try everything you see online. You don’t want to worsen the symptoms by taking a wrongly assumed remedy. Talk to your eye doctor instead before trying any home remedy.

When to see an eye doctor

In most cases, home remedies can soothe burning eyes. They also resolve it on their own sometimes. However, if the symptoms persist and worsen after some days, or are accompanied by other symptoms that have refused to resolve, then it's important to see an optometrist or ophthalmologist. 

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  2. American Academy of Ophthalmology. (2016). Here’s how to chop onions without crying.
  3. American Academy of Opthalmology. (2022). What is photokeratitis - including snow blindness?
  4. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. (2015). Eye allergies (allergic conjunctivitis).
  5. Eberhardt, M. and Rammohan, G. (2022). Blepharitis.
  6. Grajewski, Rafael S et al. (2021). A missing link between SARS-CoV-2 and the eye?: ACE2 expression on the ocular surface.
  7. Nasiri, Naser et al. (2021). Ocular Manifestations of COVID-19: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.
  8. Yilmaz, Ugur et al. (2015). Dry eye disease and depression-anxiety-stress: A hospital-based case control study in Turkey.