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Why does it feel like something is in my eye?

What is foreign body sensation?

The feeling that something is in your eye is a common experience. It can be irritating or painful and may cause excess tear production (watery eyes). This feeling, known as foreign body sensation (FBS), can be caused by an eyelash, dirt or other debris. But often, there is nothing in the eye at all. 

Common causes of foreign body sensation

General causes of the sensation that something is in your eye(s) include dry eyes; an inflammation of the eyelids called blepharitis; conjunctivitis and other eye infections; overwear of contact lenses; and an injury to the eye’s cornea. 

Dry eyes can feel scratchy

Even when there’s nothing in your eyes, they can feel scratchy and as if there is sand or grit on the surface. This can be caused by dry eye syndrome, which is caused by a faulty tear film on the surface of the eye. Your eyes need a consistent layer of tears to remain moist and healthy. 

Sometimes your eyes do not produce enough tears or make the right type of lubricating tear film. Then the tears can evaporate too quickly. When that happens, the result may be dry eye syndrome.

Symptoms of dry eye include:

Dry eye is common and affects millions of Americans each year and is more likely if you are:

  • Fifty years of age or older.

  • Female, especially if you have gone through menopause.

  • Wear contact lenses.

  • Your diet is low in vitamin A (found in carrots, liver and other foods) or healthy Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, walnuts and other foods).

  • Suffer from an autoimmune condition.

  • Work on a computer for extended hours.

  • Live in a hot, dry or windy climate.

  • Live or work in an area with direct heating or air conditioning blowing on you.

Over-the-counter eye drops often help. Lifestyle changes, such as using a humidifier and taking breaks from the computer, can also help. You might also ask your eye doctor about prescription medication for dry eye.

A chalazion or stye

There are two kinds of bumps that commonly form on the eyelids. One is a chalazion, which is a painless, cyst-like bump on the upper or lower eyelid. 

A chalazion can be either internal or external. It forms around an oil gland in the eyelid and can lead to a red, swollen lid. 

The other is a stye. A stye, also called a hordeolum, is an infection that causes a tender, red bump near the edge of the lid. It can occur at the base of an eyelash (where it is called an external stye). Or it can occur in one of the tiny oil glands in the eyelid (called an internal stye). 

A chalazion is usually painless, while a style can feel like a painful, tender pimple. You may notice either one and feel like a foreign body is in your eye. 

The stye, in particular, may make your eye feel sore and scratchy. Your eye doctor can diagnose either one easily and give you advice on treating them. 

Note: Always keep in mind that you should never squeeze a stye or chalazion, even when it comes to a head.

Blepharitis

Blepharitis is a common eye condition caused by inflammation of the eyelids. It tends to develop when the lubricating oil glands at the base of your eyelashes become clogged and infected. These lubricating oil glands are called meibomian glands.

Once the meibomian glands are clogged, bacteria can build up. Your eyelids will be red, crusty and slightly swollen, and your eyes may feel irritated and itchy. There may also be debris caught in the lashes.

Blepharitis is surprisingly common. According to a survey of eye doctors, between 37% and 47% of patients suffered from some amount of blepharitis.

Along with the feeling that there is something in your eye, some typical symptoms of blepharitis are:

  • A gritty sensation 

  • Burning or stinging

  • Redness and irritation

  • Itching eyes

  • Watery eyes

  • Crusts on the eyelids, especially in the morning when you wake up

  • Eyelids appear greasy

  • Possible lash loss if long term

Your doctor will be able to determine a treatment plan to help clear up your blepharitis.

SEE RELATED: Meibomian gland dysfunction

Conjunctivitis or pink eye

Conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, is an inflammation or infection of your conjunctiva. The conjunctiva is a thin, clear membrane that covers the white of your eye (sclera) and the inner surface of your eyelid.

The inflammation caused by pink eye can cause you to feel like there’s something in your eye. Conjunctivitis can be due to a virus, bacteria or allergy.

Other pink eye symptoms include:

  • A gritty sensation in your eye

  • Red eyes

  • Itching and a feeling of something in your eye

  • Burning and stinging

  • Watering and puffy eyes

  • Discharge from your eyes

  • Sensitivity to light

Your eye doctor will determine the cause of your conjunctivitis and give you a treatment plan to clear it up.

A scratched or cut cornea

The cornea is the clear tissue that covers your eye’s iris and pupil. Sometimes your cornea can get scratched or cut. This is called a corneal abrasion (scratch)

Your cornea can be scratched by accident with your fingernails, contact lens overwear, makeup or mascara brushes, and even a tree branch. You may also end up with a corneal abrasion if you have dry eye syndrome and rub your eyes.  

This kind of injury can make you feel that there’s actually something foreign stuck in and scratching your eye.

Some other common symptoms of corneal abrasion include:

  • Red and painful eyes with excess tears

  • Blurry vision

  • Sensitivity to light

Corneal abrasions can be very painful because the cornea contains many nerve cells. There are hundreds more pain receptors in the cornea compared to the skin.

Other causes of foreign body sensation

There are also less common causes of feeling like there’s something in your eye. These include eye infections with the herpes simplex virus (HSV). This type of eye infection is called herpes keratitis.

Foreign body sensation in the eye can also be caused by fungal infections (like fungal keratitis), and growths on your eye. These may be serious, requiring immediate care or even result in a corneal ulcer.

Sometimes, something is in your eye

Everyone gets something in their eye from time to time. Common foreign bodies that can end up in the eye include:

  • Eyelashes

  • Dust or sand, especially on windy days

  • Dirt

  • Makeup, such as mascara or eyeshadow

These can usually be removed by flushing the eye with cool water.

If you feel like something is in your eye, and it is uncomfortable, see your eye doctor. They can determine the cause and help treat the problem. Take care of your eyes so that you can preserve your vision for a lifetime.

Feeling of something in eye. American Academy of Ophthalmology. February 2021.

Why does it feel like something is rubbing against my eye when I blink? American Academy of Ophthalmology. March 2019.

What is dry eye? American Academy of Ophthalmology. September 2021.

Dry eye. National Eye Institute. December 2020.

What are styes and chalazia? American Academy of Ophthalmology. August 2021.

Eyelid bump. MedlinePlus, National Library of Medicine. August 2020.

Blepharitis in the United States 2009: A survey-based perspective on prevalence and treatment. The Ocular Surface. April 2009.

Blepharitis. National Eye Institute. August 2020.

Conjunctivitis: What is pink eye?  American Academy of Ophthalmology. July 2021.

Corneal abrasion and erosion. American Academy of Ophthalmology. September 2021.

Objects in the eye. University of Michigan Health. February 2020.

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