Child Health Library
Our Health Library information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Please be advised that this information is made available to assist our patients to learn more about their health. Our providers may not see and/or treat all topics found herein.
Eye Problems, Noninjury
Many people have minor eye problems, such as eyestrain, irritated eyes, or itchy, scaly eyelids (blepharitis). These problems may be ongoing (chronic) but usually aren't serious. Home treatment can relieve the symptoms of many minor eye problems.
See a picture of the eye.
Common eye problems
Common types of eye problems include:
- Drainage from the eyes or excessive tearing.
- Watery eyes from hay fever or other seasonal allergies.
- Eyestrain or vision changes.
- Misaligned eyes or strabismus (sometimes called cross-eyes).
- Blood in the white of the eye (subconjunctival hemorrhage).
- Eyelid problems.
- Contact lens problems.
- Color blindness.
- Night blindness.
- Retinal problems, such as diabetic retinopathy.
- Red eyes that may be caused by infection, inflammation, or tumors.
- Macular degeneration.
It is common for the eyes to be irritated or have a scratchy feeling. Pain is not a common eye problem unless there has been an injury. It is not unusual for the eyes to be slightly sensitive to light. But sudden, painful sensitivity to light is a serious problem that may mean glaucoma or inflammation of the muscles that control the pupil (iritis) and should be evaluated by your doctor.
Sudden problems such as new vision changes, pain in the eye, or increased drainage are often more serious and need to be evaluated by a doctor. Eye symptoms that are new or that occur suddenly may be evaluated by an emergency medicine specialist.
Ongoing (chronic) eye problems that may be worsening are usually evaluated by an eye doctor (ophthalmologist). A gradual change in your vision or chronic eye problems may include:
- Vision changes. These may include:
- Trouble adjusting your vision when entering a dark room.
- Trouble focusing on close or faraway objects.
- Dark spots in the center of your vision field.
- Lines or edges that appear wavy.
- Eyelid problems, such as a stye or chalazion (a small, hard lump).
- Discharge or irritation of the eyeball or eyelids, such as an infection of the inner edge of the lower eyelid (dacryocystitis) or pinkeye (conjunctivitis).
- Sensitivity to light (photophobia).
- Inability to see well at night (night blindness). A decrease in night vision may be caused by nearsightedness, cataracts, macular degeneration, or conditions that affect the retina.
People often tolerate minor eye irritation and problems for a long time, until the irritation or problems become bothersome enough to seek care. People who have skin problems and allergies often have ongoing minor problems with the skin of their eyelids and allergic irritation of the eyes.
As you reach your 40s and 50s, it is common to have some vision changes and possibly to need glasses. Some of the changes may also cause other symptoms, like headaches and nausea, that affect your ability to function.
Some children may have special risks for eye problems. Vision screening is recommended for infants who were either born at or before 30 weeks, whose birth weight was below 3.3 lb (1500 g), or who have serious medical conditions. Most vision problems are noticed first by the parents. See tips for spotting eye problems in your child. The first screening is recommended about 4 to 9 weeks after birth.footnote 1
Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Check Your Symptoms
The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.
- If you are transgender or nonbinary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
- If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
- If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
- Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
- Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
- Medicines you take. Certain medicines, such as blood thinners (anticoagulants), medicines that suppress the immune system like steroids or chemotherapy, herbal remedies, or supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
- Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
- Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.
Try Home Treatment
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
- Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
- Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.
Pain in adults and older children
- Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
- Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days. Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it's severe when it's there.
- Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.
Pain in children under 3 years
It can be hard to tell how much pain a baby or toddler is in.
- Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the baby cannot sleep, cannot get comfortable, and cries constantly no matter what you do. The baby may kick, make fists, or grimace.
- Moderate pain (5 to 7): The baby is very fussy, clings to you a lot, and may have trouble sleeping but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
- Mild pain (1 to 4): The baby is a little fussy and clings to you a little but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
Symptoms of serious illness may include:
- A severe headache.
- A stiff neck.
- Mental changes, such as feeling confused or much less alert.
- Extreme fatigue (to the point where it's hard for you to function).
- Shaking chills.
Symptoms of serious illness in a baby may include the following:
- The baby is limp and floppy like a rag doll.
- The baby doesn't respond at all to being held, touched, or talked to.
- The baby is hard to wake up.
Many prescription and nonprescription medicines can cause eye problems or changes in vision. A few examples are:
- Some antidepressants (tricyclic antidepressants).
- Erection medicines.
- Medicines for bladder control problems (anticholinergics).
- Medicines (called blood thinners) that prevent blood clots.
- Any kind of medicine that you put in your eye.
Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:
- Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
- Long-term alcohol and drug problems.
- Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety of conditions.
- Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
- Other medicines used to treat autoimmune disease.
- Medicines taken after organ transplant.
- Not having a spleen.
Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in children are:
- Diseases such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell disease, and congenital heart disease.
- Steroid medicines, which are used to treat a variety of conditions.
- Medicines taken after organ transplant.
- Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
- Not having a spleen.
Symptoms of a stroke may include:
- Sudden numbness, tingling, weakness, or paralysis in your face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of your body.
- Sudden vision changes.
- Sudden trouble speaking.
- Sudden confusion or trouble understanding simple statements.
- Sudden problems with walking or balance.
- A sudden, severe headache that is different from past headaches.
Seek Care Today
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.
- Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
- If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
- If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
- If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.
Seek Care Now
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
- Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
- If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
- You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
- You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
- You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.
Make an Appointment
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.
- Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
- If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
- If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.
Call 911 Now
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call 911 or other emergency services now.
Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.
Home treatment measures may give you some relief from your eye symptoms.
- Rest your eye.
- Don't rub your eye.
- If you wear contacts, take the contacts out to rest the eyes.
- Use cold or warm compresses, whichever feels best.
- Gently flush your eye with cool water.
- Avoid bright lights or use dark glasses to protect the eye.
- Nonprescription eyedrops, such as artificial tear solutions, such as Hypo Tears, may be used to moisten your eyes.
To learn how to use eyedrops and eye ointment, see:
Symptoms to watch for during home treatment
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:
- Vision changes occur, such as blurred vision, loss of vision, or double vision.
- Pain or drainage does not get better.
- Increased sensitivity to light (photophobia) develops.
- You have blood in the eye.
- Swelling or redness develops around the eye area (periorbital cellulitis).
- Signs of infection are present.
- Symptoms become more severe or frequent.
If you wear contacts, be sure to remove your contacts when your eye problem starts.
Take good care of your eyes to prevent eye problems.
- Injuries from ultraviolet (UV) light can be prevented by wearing sunglasses that block UV rays and by wearing broad-brimmed hats. Be aware that the eye can be injured from sun glare during boating, sunbathing, or skiing. Use eye protection while you are under tanning lamps or using tanning booths.
- Wear goggles or protective glasses when you are handling chemicals, operating power tools, hammering nails, or playing sports that involve a risk of a blow to the eye, such as racquetball or hockey.
- Wear goggles or protective glasses at all times if you have only one functional eye.
- Be a good example to your children by wearing goggles or protective glasses when needed at work or play.
- Get periodic vision checkups.
- If you wear contact lenses, take good care of them. See caring for contact lenses.
- Keep your blood pressure under control. High blood pressure can damage the blood vessels that supply blood to the eye.
People who have diabetes are at risk for a vision problem called diabetic retinopathy, which is a complication of having high blood sugar over a long time. People who have diabetes need regular eye exams so that the early stages of diabetic retinopathy can be detected and in some cases treated. They also need to keep their blood sugar levels as close to normal as possible to prevent blood vessel damage from long-term high blood sugar.
It is important to protect your children's vision. Regular eye exams identify problems early, and corrective measures can be taken. Watching a lot of television, playing video games, or frequent computer use can decrease your child's natural blink reflex, which can cause dry, red, and irritated eyes. Do not let your child use laser pointers or laser toys. These can cause permanent eye damage if the laser is pointed at the eye.
Most vision problems are noticed first by the parents. See tips for spotting eye problems in your child.
For tips on how to prevent eye infections, see the topic Pinkeye.
For tips on how to prevent eye injuries, see the topic Eye Injuries.
Preparing For Your Appointment
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
- What are your main symptoms? How long have you had your symptoms?
- Do your symptoms affect one or both eyes?
- Have you had this problem in the past? If so, do you know what caused the problem at that time? How was it treated?
- Do you wear contact lenses or eyeglasses? Do you think the problem is because of your contacts?
- Have you had any vision changes, pain in the eye, double vision, excessive tearing, or increased sensitivity to light?
- Have you had any exposure to toxic fumes, chemicals, or smoke?
- Does anyone in your family or at your workplace have an eye infection, such as drainage from the eye or red and swollen eyelids?
- Do you have allergies, or are your eye symptoms occurring at certain times of the year?
- What home treatment measures have you tried? Did they help?
- What prescription or nonprescription medicines have you used? Did they help?
- Have you recently traveled outside the country?
- Do you smoke?
- Do you have any health risks?
Current as of: June 26, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
John Pope MD - Pediatrics
Current as of: June 26, 2019
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2020 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.