Red Eye

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Red Eyes

A red eye can be alarming, but is often just a sign of a minor eye condition, such as conjunctivitis or a burst blood vessel. If it’s painful, there may be a more serious problem. The following information aims to give you a better idea about what might be causing your red eye. But it shouldn’t be used to self-diagnose your condition. Always see an eye specialist for a proper diagnosis and treatment.

When to get medical advice

See your eye care specialist for advice if you have a red eye that doesn’t start to improve after a few days. Contact us, your GP or NHS 111 immediately or go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department if:

  • you have a painful red eye
  • you have other symptoms, including any changes in your vision, sensitivity to light, a severe headache and feeling sick
  • you’ve recently injured your eye, particularly if something has pierced it
Common causes of a painless red eye

The most likely causes of a painless red eye are minor problems such as conjunctivitis or a burst blood vessel. These conditions do not tend to affect your vision and usually get better within a week or two.


Conjunctivitis causes the blood vessels on the eye to swell, making one or both eyes look bloodshot and feel gritty. Other symptoms can include itchiness and watering of the eyes, and a sticky coating on the eyelashes. Conjunctivitis can be caused by an infection, an allergy (for example, to pollen), or an irritant like chlorine or dust. Treatment will depend on what’s causing the condition. Sometimes treatment isn’t needed because it may get better on its own.

  • Conjunctivitis
  • Sub-conjunctival haemorrhage
Burst blood vessel

Straining, coughing or injuring your eye can sometimes cause a blood vessel to burst on the surface of the eye, resulting in a bright red blotch. It can look alarming, particularly if you are taking medication like aspirin or warfarin, as these reduce the blood’s ability to clot. It is not usually serious and should clear up on its own within a few weeks, but to exclude any more sinister explanations it is worth having it checked.

Common causes of a painful red eye

If your red eye is painful or you have other symptoms, such as changes in your vision, it should be assessed by an eye specialist as soon as possible.


Uveitis is a general name for inflammation of the eye. If the iris, the coloured part of the eye, becames inflammed this is known as iritis. As well as a red eye, your eye may be sensitive to light, your vision may be blurred, and you may have a headache. Uveitis is a serious condition but usually responds quickly to treatment with steroid medication to reduce the inflammation.

Acute Glaucoma

Acute Glaucoma is a rare form of Glaucoma in which the eye pressure dramatically increases. As a result your eye will probably be very red and painful, and you may feel sick and see halos around lights. Your vision may also be blurred or cloudy. You need to be seen by an Ophthalmologist (eye doctor) immediately. This is because it could lead to a permanent loss of vision if not treated quickly.

Corneal ulcer

An ulcer on the cornea, the clear outer layer at the front of the eyeball, can make the eye red and sensitive to light. It can also feel like there’s something in your eye. People who wear contact lenses have an increased risk of getting bacterial corneal ulcers. Viral corneal ulcers are more likely to affect people who often get cold sores. You will need to be referred to an eye specialist for treatment.

Scratch or foreign body

A red and painful eye can sometimes be caused by a particle, such as a piece of grit, getting in your eye. If you think there is something irritating your eye it is best to be seen by us rather than a GP as we have the required equipment for a more detailed investigation. An anaesthetic eye drop may be used if a foreign body object can be easily removed otherwise onward referral to an eye department may be necessary. If the foreign body has scratched your eye, you may require antibiotic eye drops or ointment to use for a few days to reduce the risk of infection while it heals.

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37 Lavant Street, Petersfield, Hampshire, GU32 3EL, 01730 264258