10 causes of eye discomfort

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If a person can feel something in their eye, it is typically an eyelash, some dust, or a grain of sand. However, “foreign body sensation” can cause eye discomfort without there

actually being anything in the eye.

Dry eyes and inflammation of the eyelids can make it feel as though something is in the eye. Some causes of this sensation are benign, while others might require immediate medical attention to prevent vision loss.

Read on to learn about why a person might feel that something is in the eye, as well as some ways to relieve the discomfort.

1. Corneal abrasions
Corneal abrasions are a possible cause of eye discomfort.

The cornea is the dome-shaped window in the center of the eye. It is possible to damage the cornea.

For example, a person who accidentally scratches their cornea with their fingernail, a makeup brush, or a foreign object may experience the feeling that something is in their eye — despite not being able to find a foreign object.

Other symptoms of corneal abrasion may include:

  • red, painful, and watery eyes
  • blurry or hazy vision
  • sensitivity to light

Treatment

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), a small abrasion should take 1–2 days to heal, whereas a larger one may take 1 week.

Some treatment options include:

  • wearing an eye patch to prevent further damage
  • using eye drops to soothe the cornea
  • using eye drops to dilate the pupil to help ease the pain
2. Laceration

A laceration involves a cut in the cornea. The cut can partially or fully lacerate the cornea.

Treatment

According to the AAO, a corneal laceration is serious, and to prevent loss of vision, a person should seek immediate medical attention.

If a laceration occurs, a person should place a shield, such as the bottom of a plastic cup, over the eye for protection. They should then see an ophthalmologist.

A person should avoid:

  • rinsing the eye with water
  • removing any foreign objects
  • applying pressure to the eye
  • taking medication such as aspirin or ibuprofen, as these can thin the blood and cause more bleeding
3. Ulcer

An ulcer is an open sore on the cornea. A person can develop ulcers from severe dry eyes or bacterial, viral, parasitic, or fungal infections.

Some signs and symptoms of a corneal ulcer may include:

  • redness
  • severe pain and soreness
  • the feeling of having something in the eye
  • tearing
  • pus or discharge
  • blurred vision
  • sensitivity to light
  • swelling of the eyelids
  • a white spot on the cornea

Treatment

An ophthalmologist or optometrist might prescribe antifungal, antibiotic, or antiviral eye drops to treat the infection.

After the infection has gone, they may prescribe steroid or anti-inflammatory eye drops to prevent scarring. For steroid eye drops, it is important to follow the dosing instructions carefully.

Surgical treatment may also be an option. A corneal transplant may be necessary if the ulcer has caused significant scarring or the person experiences a loss of vision.

4. Fungal keratitis

Fungal keratitis is an infection of the cornea. Fungal keratitis can develop as a result of contact lens use or injury to the eye. Different fungi can cause fungal keratitis, including Fusarium, Aspergillus, and Candida.

People with fungal keratitis may feel as though there is something in their eye.

Other symptoms may include:

  • pain
  • redness
  • blurred vision
  • sensitivity to light
  • excessive tearing
  • discharge

An ophthalmologist may take a sample of the lesion by scraping the cornea to test for the bacterial species causing the infection.

Treatment

Treatment options for fungal keratitis may include antifungal medications such as natamycin, amphotericin B, or voriconazole for several months.

If the infection does not improve, a corneal transplant may be necessary.

5. Sjogren’s syndrome

Sjogren’s syndrome is an autoimmune condition. It develops when the immune cells attack and damage the tear and saliva glands.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, it affects around 1–4 million people in the United States, who are typically over the age of 40. Females are more likely to develop Sjogren’s syndrome.

The two main symptoms are dry eyes and dry mouth, due to the body not being able to produce tears or enough saliva.

Some other symptoms affecting the eyes and mouth may include:

  • itching and burning eyes
  • a sensation similar to that of sand being in the eyes
  • blurred vision
  • sensitivity to light
  • difficulty swallowing
  • a chalky feeling in the mouth

A person may also experience oral thrush and corneal ulcers.

Sjogren’s syndrome can also affect the joints, lungs, digestive organs, nerves, and blood vessels. As a result, other symptoms may include:

  • swollen glands
  • rashes

Treatment

The treatment for Sjogren’s syndrome includes using artificial tears during the day. During the night, a person can use a gel. Prescription eye drops are also an option.

When outside, a person can wear sunglasses or goggles to help shield the eyes and prevent tears from evaporating.

If it is more severe, punctal occlusion might help. This procedure requires an eye doctor to put small plugs in the tear ducts to block them. This can help tears stay on the eyes for longer, thereby keeping them moist.

6. Dry eyes

When a person blinks, tears spread across the surface of the eye, providing lubrication. The production and drainage of tears occur spontaneously.

Tears also prevent infections, wash away foreign matter, and keep the surface of the eyes clean and smooth.

Tears consist of oil, water, and mucus. An imbalance in any of these components can cause dry eyes. The most common form of dry eyes occurs when the water balance is inadequate. Eye doctors call this dry eye syndrome.

People with dry eyes are unable to produce enough tears to lubricate and nourish their eyes.

Those with dry eyes may have an imbalance in production or drainage. Sometimes, people with dry eyes also have poor quality tears.

Symptoms of dry eyes include:

  • irritation
  • a gritty, scratchy, or burning sensation
  • a feeling of something being in the eye
  • excess watering
  • blurred vision

Some potential causes of dry eyes include:

  • Age: According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), the majority of people over the age of 65 experience symptoms of dry eyes.
  • Medications: Medications such as antihistamines, antidepressants, blood pressure medications, and decongestants can cause a reduction in tear production.
  • Sex: The AOA suggest that females have a higher chance of developing dry eyes due to pregnancy and the use of contraceptives, as well as menopause.
  • Medical conditions: Dry eye syndrome can affect those with rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid problems, and diabetes.
  • Environment: Smoke, dry climates, and wind can all increase the evaporation of tears.

Treatment

Artificial tears are over-the-counter (OTC) solutions that help treat dry eyes. Eye doctors may recommend preservative-free eye drops, since these cause less irritation.

A person can also relieve dry eyes at home by blinking regularly, staying hydrated, and increasing the humidity in the surroundings, if possible.

7. Blepharitis

People with blepharitis usually have chronic irritation and inflammation of the lid margins, with flaking and crusting on the eyelashes. Infections and allergies can both cause blepharitis.

Ophthalmologists and optometrists sometimes diagnose blepharitis in people with seborrheic dermatitis of the face and scalp, which also causes flaking of the skin.

Some other symptoms of blepharitis include:

  • itching
  • burning
  • crusting of the eyelids
  • tearing
  • blurred vision
  • foreign body sensation

Researchers have not yet identified the exact cause of blepharitis, but they suggest that many factors may be possible.

Acute blepharitis can be ulcerative or nonulcerative. If it is ulcerative, a viral infection such as the herpes simplex virus or a bacterial staphylococcal infection is typically the cause.

Nonulcerative causes include allergies, such as hayfever.

A person may experience worsening of blepharitis symptoms in the morning, and symptoms will usually affect both eyes.

Treatment

In blepharitis, treatment includes good eyelid hygiene practices and warm compresses. It may also include applying topical antibiotics to the lid margins for 2–8 weeks.

Some people may need oral antibiotics or corticosteroids for blepharitis cases that do not respond to topical treatment.

8. Conjunctivitis

Also known as “pink eye,” conjunctivitis causes inflammation of the conjunctiva. This is the transparent, lubricating membrane covering the surface of the eye, except the cornea.

Symptoms of conjunctivitis include:

  • redness of the eyes
  • discharge
  • p
  • ain
  • foreign body sensation
  • morning matting of the eyes
  • itching
  • tearing
  • inflamed eyelids

The most common causes of conjunctivitis include viruses, bacteria, and allergens.

Treatment

If allergies or adenoviruses are the cause of conjunctivitis, artificial tears may help relieve the symptoms.

A person with conjunctivitis may require antibiotics, depending on the cause of the infection. Eye doctors can prescribe either antibiotic drops or ointments.

Sometimes, oral or intramuscular antibiotics may be necessary.

9. Chalazion

A chalazion is a lipid-filled growth inside the eyelid. It typically starts off as a painless lump, but it can cause impaired vision and discomfort with time.

Chazalia can also become inflamed and infected.

Treatment

Chalazia may not require treatment, as they tend to be self-limiting and benign. In fact, according to one 2020 article, most cases of chalazia resolve after roughly 1 month with proper eye hygiene techniques.

Treatment options include using a warm compress two to four times per day for 15 minutes and massaging the lid with baby shampoo.

Medication includes steroids. Or, if an eye doctor suspects that the cause is an infection, a person can take antibiotics instead.

For persistent lesions, surgery may be necessary.

10. Pinguecula and pterygium

Pinguecula causes yellowish growths to develop on the conjunctiva. Eye doctors typically find this condition on the side of the eye closest to the nose.

People with pterygium, or surfer’s eye, have fleshy growths on their conjunctiva that may have originated as a pinguecula. A pterygium can stay small, but if it grows large, it may affect a person’s vision.

Eye doctors believe that pinguecula and pterygium develop due to exposure to UV light, wind, and dust.

Treatment

Although surgeons can remove these growths, they may grow back. Eye protection measures such as wrap-around sunglasses and artificial tears can help prevent regrowth.

When to see a doctor

A person with a corneal laceration or ulcer requires immediate medical attention to prevent vision loss.

Anyone who thinks that they have a foreign body in their eye should consult with an eye doctor for a full eye examination. A person should also see an eye doctor if they are unable to identify a foreign object that may be causing eye discomfort.

If treatment for foreign body sensation is unsuccessful, a person should consult an eye doctor for follow-up.

When artificial tears are inadequate to lubricate the eyes, a person should see an eye doctor. They can recommend other treatments and suggest follow-up appointments to prevent the progression to advanced dry eyes. People with advanced dry eyes might eventually experience vision loss.

Doctors can also diagnose the cause of dry eyes, such as a medical condition or certain medication, and suggest different strategies to treat them.

People with eye infections should consult a doctor to determine whether or not treatment with antibiotics is necessary.

Anyone with eye pain, vision loss, severe discharge, scarring of the conjunctiva, or a frequent feeling that something is in the eye should consult an ophthalmologist or optometrist.

Summary

A person may feel as though there is something in their eye for one of many reasons. Some may involve actual foreign objects, but others may not.

Dry eyes and conjunctivitis are two reasons that a person may feel as though something is in their eye. OTC artificial tears can help resolve this symptom. Other infections and injuries to the eye may require urgent medical attention.

Anyone who suspects that they have an infection or eye injury should consult an eye doctor to prevent long-term damage and vision loss.

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