Stinging eyes: Causes and treatments for burning eyes
Burning eyes can have several possible causes, ranging from the simple to the complex, and the burning sensation can occur with or without other symptoms such as itching, eye pain, watery eyes or discharge.
Frequently, burning eyes are caused by unavoidable environmental influences, such as strong winds or high pollen counts. However, similar sensations can be symptoms of a more serious eye problem that requires medical attention.
To select appropriate treatment, it's important to first establish the cause (or causes) of your burning eyes.
Causes of stinging eyes
Sometimes it's easy to tell what's causing an eye to burn. For example, your eyes might burn if you get chemicals in them, such as shampoo or conditioner, chlorine from a swimming pool, or sunscreen. Other common irritants that can make your eyes burn include makeup, skin moisturisers, soap and cleaning products.
Wearing contact lenses for long periods of time also can make your eyes burn.
Burning eyes also can stem from environmental irritants like smog, smoke, dust, mould, pollen or pet dander. If you are allergic to any of these substances, they are even more likely to make your eyes burn. However, even "clean" air can cause your eyes to burn, especially when it's particularly hot, cold or dry.
Although getting something in your eyes can cause them to burn, burning eyes sometimes signal a serious eye condition. For example, conditions such as ocular rosacea, dry eyes and blepharitis can cause symptoms of burning eyes.
In fact, anything that causes inflammation can create a burning sensation. Eye allergies, as well as bacterial and viral eye infections, can cause inflammation that leads to burning eyes. Even a common cold or the flu can cause your eyes to burn.
In rare instances, burning eyes can be a sign of a serious sight or life-threatening condition such as uveitis or orbital cellulitis.
Often, burning eyes occur alongside other symptoms that can give your optometrist clues about the root cause of your discomfort. For example, when burning eyes occur with itching, it may signal allergies; or if you have burning and eye discharge, this could mean an infection.
How to get relief from burning eyes
If a household product gets in your eyes and causes burning, the first thing you should do is check the product label for specific instructions. In many cases, you will be able to safely rinse your eyes to alleviate the burning sensation.
For example, children and adults often get sunscreen in their eyes during the warmer months. Though the burning or stinging may initially be significant, rinsing your eyes gently with clean water often will provide quick relief.
If you are an allergy sufferer, your doctor (GP) or optometrist may prescribe specific eye drops that can minimise the burning you might usually experience during allergy season. These drops differ from oral allergy medicines, which can sometimes cause eyes to burn by drying them out.
If you are taking an allergy medication, or any other medication that you believe is causing your eyes to burn, make sure you discuss your concerns with your optometrist before discontinuing use.
Burning eyes caused by a dry eye condition can usually be relieved with frequent use of lubricating eye drops (also called artificial tears). When selecting a brand of artificial tears, consider one that is preservative-free — particularly if you plan to use the drops frequently. If your discomfort continues, let your optometrist know, since there are other dry eye treatments that may be more effective and also help relieve your burning eyes.
Cool compresses gently applied over your closed eyelids also can help soothe burning eyes.
When to see an optometrist
If your burning eyes are accompanied by pain or excessive light sensitivity, or if you have any eye discharge, blurred vision, eye floaters or flashes of light, double vision or other unexpected symptoms, contact your optometrist right away for immediate attention.
Even if none of these additional symptoms occur, you should contact your optometrist if your eyes continue to burn for more than a few days.
Page updated July 2020