Glassy eyes: Causes, treatment and prevention
What are glassy eyes?
Glassy eyes can be caused by a variety of eye conditions and health issues, from allergies to digital eye strain to certain types of medications. While “glassy eyes” is not a medical term, it’s commonly used to refer to either a blank stare or eyes that look smooth and shiny like glass.
The causes of glassy or glossy eyes vary, and treatment depends on the underlying issue.
What causes glassy or glossy eyes?
Glassy eyes can be caused by a variety of eye conditions, health problems or drug use.
Some common causes of glassy or glossy eyes include:
Alcohol or drugs
Use of alcohol and other drugs (for example, caffeine, methamphetamine and marijuana) can affect the appearance of the eyes. They can also lead to eye infections or other eye problems over time.
Intoxication may cause glazed over or watery eyes, or a glassy stare. And glassy eyes are also a recognized sign of alcohol abuse and alcoholism.
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Treatments for allergies that affect the eyes may include: eye drops or other medications such as antihistamines, decongestants or steroids.
If you wear contact lenses, your eye doctor may also recommend switching to glasses temporarily to give your eyes a rest. Allergy shots (immunotherapy) may also be an option.
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Have you ever spent too much time outside on a hot, sunny day without drinking enough water or other liquids? This puts you at risk of dehydration, which can cause an array of symptoms, from cramps to dizziness to dry mouth and dry eyes.
When you’re dehydrated, your eyes may start to water and look glassy. Severe dehydration requires emergency medical treatment. But dehydration can be prevented by avoiding excess alcohol consumption and drinking plenty of fluids, especially before, during and after exercise.
Digital eye strain
If you spend a lot of time in front of a screen, using blue light blocking glasses may help to prevent glassy eyes. You can also take frequent breaks and take other steps to prevent digital eye strain.
It may seem counterintuitive, but dry eye syndrome can actually cause watery eyes that look glassy.
Strategies to manage dry eye syndrome may include behavior changes, such as quitting smoking or using glasses or goggles for dry eyes outside in windy weather. Your eye doctor may also prescribe eye drops or procedures to treat dry eyes.
Eye infections (conjunctivitis, eye herpes)
Symptoms of eye infections may include blurry vision, dry eyes, swollen eyes or watery eyes that look shiny. Eye infections may be caused by bacteria, fungi, parasites or viruses.
Treatment for an eye infection will depend on the type of infection and may include prescription eye drops and eye compresses.
Some infectious diseases can lead to glassy or watery eyes.
One such infectious disease that can cause glassy eyes is cholera, which is rare in the United States but common in Africa, Central and South America and other parts of the world. Cholera symptoms include glassy eyes, dry mouth and skin, sunken eyes, cramps, nausea and watery diarrhea.
Treatment for cholera includes antibiotics and fluids by mouth or IV (intravenously).
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Thyroid eye disease
Another condition that may cause glassy eyes is thyroid eye disease, also known as Graves’ eye disease. Thyroid eye disease often occurs along with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune condition that causes an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism).
Symptoms of thyroid eye disease include watery eyes, as well as eye pain, protruding eyes, sensitivity to light and a gritty feeling in the eyes.
Treatment for Graves’ eye disease may include eye drops, medication or surgery along with behaviors like wearing sunglasses.
There are a variety of medications that may lead to dry eyes, which can cause watery or glassy eyes. Some categories of medicines that can cause dry eyes may include: acne medications, antidepressants and anxiety medications, cold medicines, contraceptives and high blood pressure medications.
If you have glassy eyes and you’re taking prescription drugs, ask your doctor or eye doctor if your eye issue could be a side effect of the medication.
Vision surgery such as LASIK and cataract surgery may cause watery eyes and dry eyes (sometimes resulting in glassy or watery eyes). The good news is that dry eyes caused by surgery typically resolve within a few weeks.
If you recently had eye surgery and are experiencing glassy eyes, talk to your eye surgeon. Your doctor may recommend artificial tears or prescription eye drops to ease symptoms.
How do you treat glassy eyes?
There is no single treatment for glassy eyes. The treatment for glossy, shiny or watery eyes depends on the underlying cause of the issue.
See your eye doctor for glassy eyes so they can make a diagnosis and offer treatment suggestions. In some cases, treatment for the underlying problem will resolve the symptom of shiny, glazed over or watery eyes.
If you are taking prescription medications for a health condition, you may also need to see your primary doctor or specialist. They can determine whether glassy eyes may be a side effect of the medication and decide whether any changes are necessary.
Can you prevent glassy eyes?
You can take steps to keep your eyes and body healthy and prevent common problems that lead to glassy eyes. Here are six ways to keep your eyes healthy.
1. Limit your alcohol intake and avoid use of illicit drugs.
It may go without saying, but one way to prevent glassy eyes is to refrain from use of illegal or dangerous drugs. And limit your intake of alcohol and legal drugs, like marijuana (in some states).
2. Keep your eyes moist.
Make a point to blink regularly, and use artificial tears if needed to keep your eyes lubricated and comfortable. Choose lubricating eye drops that are free of preservatives to avoid irritation and soothe your eyes.
3. Avoid digital eye strain.
Take steps to reduce digital eye strain. Use the 20-20-20 rule: After 20 minutes of screen use, look at something at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds to give your eyes a break. Also set the brightness on your devices to a medium level. Screens that are too dark or too bright can add to eye strain. You might also consider computer glasses for long hours in front of the computer screen.
4. Get plenty of sleep.
Get a good night’s sleep every night to rest and restore your eyes. Lack of sleep can lead to dry, tired eyes that may look glassy. Using a sleep mask is one easy, inexpensive way to block light out to get a better sleep. It is also recommended to avoid digital screens for two hours before bed to ensure a better night’s sleep.
5. Take steps to avoid eye infections.
Try not to rub your eyes, avoid sharing towels and wash your hands regularly to prevent an eye infection that could lead to glassy eyes. If you wear contact lenses, follow your eye doctor’s instructions for proper contact lens care.
6. Care for your overall health.
Take basic steps to stay healthy: Eat for eye health and get moderate exercise. Again, avoid drinking too much alcohol and don’t start or stop smoking. Visit your primary care doctor regularly and control any chronic conditions, such as diabetes, high cholesterol or high blood pressure, which can lead to eye problems.
SEE RELATED: 15 ways heart disease affects eye health
7. Get regular eye exams.
Get routine comprehensive eye exams even if you don’t have any problems with your vision. Your eye doctor can look inside your eyes and spot signs of eye problems early. This can allow you to get treatment to prevent eye problems from getting worse.
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Thyroid eye disease. Rare Disease Database, National Organization for Rare Disorders. February 2020.
How to treat dry eyes. University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. July 2018.
LASIK and advanced vision correction. Flaum Eye Institute, University of Rochester Medical Center. Accessed March 2022.
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Exercise may stave off eye disease, study finds. American Academy of Ophthalmology. October 2020.
Diabetic retinopathy. National Eye Institute. June 2021.
Page published in April 2022
Page updated in January 1
Medically reviewed in April 2022