Your eyes are precious so you should get any serious or persistent problems checked out quickly, says Dr Melanie Wynne-Jones

Woman using drops for sore eyes

It’s important to have sore eyes checked out © iStock

Eye redness means inflammation, and unless it’s very mild or brief, it should always be checked out.

You’ll need same-day medical advice if you have injured your eye, wear contact lenses, notice pain, change in vision, sensitivity to light or other symptoms such as a headache, fever or feeling unwell.

It may be something simple, but your sight could be at risk so you’ll need a thorough examination.

Red and irritated

A sub-conjunctival haemorrhage (burst blood vessel) appears suddenly, often after coughing or straining, or if you’re taking blood-thinning drugs such as warfarin.

It looks dramatic, like a red ink blob, may feel uncomfortable and take days to disappear, but it won’t affect your sight.

However, you may need a blood-pressure check or a blood test.

Conjunctivitis causes pink/red watery eyes that itch or sting and may be caused by allergies to pollen, make-up or pets.

Antihistamine drops or tablets from your pharmacy will help.

Virus infections can also cause conjunctivitis, but unlike in bacterial conjunctivitis (which produces a greenish discharge), antibiotic drops won’t help. They’re both infectious, so good hygiene is important.

Dry eyes can be red and watery, too, or feel gritty. Frequent blinking and lubricant drops (from your pharmacy) can give relief.

Blepharitis affects lashes and lids, can make eyelids red and scaly, and is linked to seborrheic eczema (greasy red skin patches or dandruff).

Lid hygiene will help – put a warm wet flannel on closed eyes for 10 minutes, then massage lids gently and use a cotton bud dipped in diluted baby shampoo to rub away scales on lid edges.

You may need antibiotic ointment from your GP.

Red and painful

This always means trouble and usually affects vision, too. Corneal abrasions (damage to the eye’s protective surface) are common, especially in contact-lens wearers, and will usually heal quickly with antibiotic drops.

But the pain is similar to an injury, foreign body in the eye or an infected corneal ulcer, which can all threaten sight, so your eye must be checked as you may need prompt intensive treatment.

The doctor may need to use anaesthetic drops to examine your eye carefully with a slit lamp (like a microscope) and yellow fluorescent drops to show up abrasions and ulcers.

Uveitis (deeper inflammation) produces redness, intense pain, watering and aversion to
light. It’s sometimes linked to immune-system disorders and is treated with steroid drops.

Acute glaucoma (sudden rise in eyeball pressure when fluid drainage is blocked) produces a red, tense eyeball with ‘haloes’ of round lights, hazy vision, headache and/or vomiting.

The pressure must be reduced immediately using drops and intravenous injections, or even surgery to improve drainage.

Scleritis is painful redness and/or streakiness in the eyeball’s tough outer ‘shell’, often over the white of the eye.

It’s often linked to immune-system disorders and may need treatment with anti-inflammatory drugs, steroids and/or immune suppressants.

5 ways to protect eyes

1 Have an eye test every two years – annually if you have diabetes or an eye or immune-system disease.

2 Wear wraparound sunglasses (look for the British Standard CE mark) to protect against sunburn, cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.

3 Wear protective goggles for DIY, gardening, racquet sports and jobs that could spray debris or chemicals into your eyes.

4 Eat a ‘rainbow’ of fresh fruit and veg for antioxidants to protect against AMD. Oily fish is good for eyes, too.

5 Don’t smoke – it doubles your risk of AMD, is linked to cataracts and can make diabetes eye disease worse.