Red eyes are a common problem. That “bloodshot” appearance occurs when blood vessels in the white part of the eye—the conjunctiva—are irritated and become enlarged.
This can happen for many reasons. In some cases, it’s a sign of a medical condition such as pink eye (conjunctivitis), uveitis, corneal ulcer, or acute angle-closure glaucoma, especially if accompanied by certain symptoms.
See your healthcare provider for prompt referral to an ophthalmologist if you have a red eye following an injury, or have:
- Severe pain
- Vision changes
- Light sensitivity
- Cold-like symptoms
- Blood in the iris (the colored part of the eye)
Most often, however, the cause of red eyes is benign, such as lack of sleep, alcohol consumption, smoking (and kicking the habit is the most advisable solution), swimming in a chlorinated pool, or, ironically, overusing eye drops to treat the redness.
In these cases, there are over-the-counter (OTC) products and home remedies you can try to get the red out and prevent it from coming back.
Cold compresses work by constricting blood vessels in the eyes. Not only will this help to erase redness, it’ll reduce fluid retention around the eyes.
How to Use:
- To make a cold compress, fill a bowl with ice and water.
- Submerge a clean washcloth in the water to soak it up.
- Remove it and wring out the excess.
- Apply to closed eyes for between five and 10 minutes.
- Repeat a few times per day.
Small bags of frozen peas or corn make effective compresses as well, as they conform to the eye area and tend to stay colder longer than a cloth.
Artificial tears, clinically known as demulcent drops, are over-the-counter eye drops formulated to restore moisture to dry, inflamed eyes. Artificial tears should be applied fairly often; most people tend to under-use them.
Causes of dry eye include:
- Environmental conditions (wind, smoke, dry climate)
- Age (being over 50)
- Screen use
- Medications (antihistamines, decongestants, blood pressure medications, antidepressants)
- Medical conditions (diabetes, thyroid disease, Sjogren’s syndrome)
How to Use
Try inserting artificial tears:
- Every hour for the first six hours
- Six times per day for the rest of the week
Some people store a bottle of eye drops in the refrigerator, as the chilled fluid may be soothing to the eyes.
Vasoconstrictors (decongestants) work by shrinking the small blood vessels in the conjunctiva. Examples of vasoconstricting eye drops include:
- Visine Original (tetrahydrozoline)
- Clear Eyes (naphazoline)
- Neofrin (phenylephrine)
They’re not popular with eye doctors because, when used for too long, they wear off quickly and prompt too-frequent use. This can cause “rebound redness”—when the drops wear off, blood vessels dilate even larger than they were before, making eyes appear bloodshot.
How to Use
Apply no more than twice daily:
- Once in the morning
- Once before bedtime
Vasoconstrictors reduce redness and may be used safely for up to 72 hours.
More frequent use of this type of eye drop is not good for your eyes. If you find yourself needing them every morning, consult your healthcare provider.
Do not use vasodilator eye drops without consulting your healthcare provider first if you’re pregnant or have:
- Heart condition
- High blood pressure
People who have narrow angle glaucoma should not use vasodilator eye drops.
Antihistamine Eye Drops
Antihistamine eye drops contain medications designed to treat symptoms of eye allergy (allergic conjunctivitis)—chief among them itching, but also redness, soreness, stinging, and/or swelling—triggered by the immune system response to an allergen.
Once available only by prescription, antihistamine eye drops can now be purchased over the counter. Brands include Opcon-A and Naphcon-A, which contain both an antihistamine to control itching and a vasoconstrictor to shrink swollen blood vessels to reduce redness.
How to Use
Antihistamines are short-acting, so they must be used:
- At least four times per day
- Or per a healthcare provider’s direction
- But not for more than two to three consecutive days, as this can increase irritation and other symptoms
If you wear contact lenses, wait 10 minutes after using antihistamine eye drops before inserting them.
If your eye allergy symptoms don’t improve or worsen, see your eye doctor. Ask your healthcare provider before using an antihistamine/vasoconstrictor eye drop (such as Opcon-A) if you have:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Enlarged prostate
- Narrow angle glaucoma