Bloodshot eyes aren’t just for frequent fliers and night owls. Staring at a computer screen, wearing eye makeup, smoking marijuana and suffering from allergies or infections can all make you see red. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, allergies affect about 50 million people in the United States alone. That means up to 30 percent of adults and 40 percent of children may be suffering from red, itchy, watery eyes.
Many people are inclined to immediately reach for a bottle of Visine or other “fast acting” redness-relieving eye drops—but you may want to reconsider. Some eye drops may do more harm than good. Most “redness relieving” antihistamine drops contain vasoconstrictors, which work great as a quick fix, but can do damage if used too frequently or for a long period of time.
Eyes that get red are often dry or tired, says Venice, Calif.-based optometrist James Hoff, OD. Marijuana dries ocular tissue and makeup irritates the eyes, causing redness. “Blood vessels swell because they are attempting to bring relief to the irritated area,” he explains. “Vasoconstrictors make the eyes look better by constricting or de-swelling the blood vessels.” They can also help with eye allergies by limiting “the leakage of histamines from the blood vessels,” says Hoff. “However, overuse of this type of drop can result in a rebound effect, making things look worse.” Usage once or twice a day is fine over a few days, but Hoff cautions that long-term use increases the risk of a rebound effect.
Unfortunately, vasoconstrictors don’t call themselves out on their labels and every manufacturer uses different ingredients, but Hoff reiterates that any drop that claims to “get the red out” or is an antihistamine will contain vasoconstrictors. That’s why it’s crucial to figure out the cause of your eye problems and not just treat the symptom, says Hoff. Whenever the eye is irritated, the tissue that gets red is the conjunctive, and there are several types of conjunctivitis.
Pinkeye can be either bacterial or viral conjunctivitis. Bacterial conjunctivitis involves a bacterial infection and medium to intense redness with yellow or greenish discharge, and can be treated with antibiotics. Viral conjunctivitis causes mostly tearing and very mild redness, and is typically untreatable (unless herpetic in nature). Fungal conjunctivitis is pretty rare and seldom seen, but is treatable with medicated drops and often a result of contact with something organic. Finally, allergic conjunctivitis involves an allergen resulting in mild redness, sticky white discharge and itching.
If you’re suffering from eye allergies, an oral antihistamine can help reduce symptoms. Other options are artificial tears (to help soothe the eyes by reducing dryness or balancing pH), homeopathic drops, cool compresses (to calm irritation) and prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories such as Patanol, Pataday and Lastacraft (to reduce allergy symptoms as needed).
But before you run to the doctor, first try this simple red eye remedy: Stop staring at your computer screen and blink slowly to naturally moisten your eyes.