‘Red eye’ is a term used when the eye is red, itchy, watery and feels gritty. It may be caused by an infection, an allergy such as hayfever or an irritation such as smoke, dust, eye make-up, or computer screens. Rarely, red eye may be a result of an inflammatory condition such as iritis or uveitis, which can be caused by problems with the immune system. When an infection causes the eye to look red, there is usually a thicker discharge and a ‘gritty’ feeling in the eye.
An allergy results in bloodshot, glazed eyes that are watery and very itchy. The surrounding area may be puffy or there may be dark circles under the eyes.
‘Dry eye’, which is common in the elderly and may be caused by some medicines, may also redden the eyes but requires different treatment to ‘red eye’.
You should seek medical advice urgently if:
You should try to avoid substances that irritate your eyes, such as smoke, dust, cosmetics and chlorine in swimming pools, if these are known aggravating factors.
The treatment your doctor prescribes will depend on what is causing the problem. For example, an allergy should respond to antihistamine eye drops. Soothing eye drops and eye ointments or gels may help.
You should discard all drops, solutions and ointments one month after opening. However, unit (single) dose lubricant eye drop packs remain sterile until opened, if used within the expiry date printed on the packet.
You should also remove your contact lenses before using some types of eye drops (follow the manufacturer's instructions or check with your pharmacist), and should not wear contact lenses at all if an eye infection is present. Some drops contain medicines or preservatives that will damage contact lenses.
Last Reviewed: 17 June 2009