swollen eyes

Irritation and Swollen Eyes: How to care for swollen eyes

Swollen eyes can occur for a number of reasons, including injury, allergies, illness and even crying. Since treatment may vary for each case, it’s important to know what caused your swollen eyes.

While severe cases of swollen eyes may be due to an underlying condition and should be addressed by an eye doctor, mild cases of swollen eyes may benefit from home remedies such as cool compresses and tea bags, among many other treatments.

Whether you’re out in the fresh spring air or cleaning your dusty basement, allergens run amok throughout the year. They trigger allergy symptoms like coughing, sneezing, stuffy and runny nose — and swollen eyes. Allergies can cause the eyes to swell and become red, itchy, watery, and really uncomfortable.

“The reason people have swollen eyes from allergies is they’re getting contact in the eyes from airborne allergens,” says Princess Ogbogu, MD, the director of the division of allergy and immunology and an associate professor at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.

“Basically, when the allergens hit your eyes, they sort of dissolve in your tears,” says Dr. Ogbogu. “They have contact with the lining of the eye [the conjunctiva], and they react with antibodies that are bound to cells in your eyes.” These antibodies cause the body to release histamine — which also causes nasal congestion that often accompanies swollen eyes.

The allergens doing this damage include outdoor allergens such as pollen and molds, and indoor allergens such as pet dander and indoor molds.

Symptoms

Swelling under the eye often causes puffiness, which may lead to the eye partially closing over. Depending on the underlying cause, it may affect one or both eyes.

For some conditions, swelling may occur with other symptoms, such as eye discoloration, itching, bruising, tearing, or discharge.

Causes of swelling on one side

Swelling under one eye may be due to the following causes:

Excessive eye rubbing

People sometimes rub the eyes due to fatigue, itchiness, or a foreign object in the eye. According to the Seattle Children’s Hospital, excessive eye rubbing can lead to swelling. Avoiding touching the eyes will allow the area to return to normal.

Injury

Swelling under the eye may indicate an injury. A cut or bruise may cause swelling, discoloration, and pain. Similarly, insect bites, such as a mosquito bite that occur near the eye, may cause swelling.

Small injuries in the eye area may heal on their own if a person keeps the area clean and dry. If the swelling and pain get worse, or there are signs of infection, such as pus or discharge, a person may need medical treatment.

Blocked tear duct

A blocked tear duct prevents tears from draining from the eye and can also cause under-eye swelling. The American Acadamy of Ophthalmology (AAO), list other symptoms of a blocked tear duct, which include watery eyes and tearing.

Blocked tear ducts can develop due to an eye infection, an injury, or a tumor. If the blockage is the result of an injury, it may resolve on its own. An infection may require antibiotics.

Stye

A stye is an infection that occurs at the base of the eyelashes, causing a painful lump. The AAO indicate that when a person has a stye, they might feel like there is a foreign object in their eye. A person’s eye may also feel scratchy, sensitive to light, or watery.

Styes can clear up on their own. However, if a stye does not improve, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics or may need to drain it.

Periorbital cellulitis

Periorbital cellulitis occurs when a wound near the eye becomes infected. It causes severe under-eye swelling, pain, and inflammation. According to a 2020 articleTrusted Source, it is most common in children and is often due to trauma or sinusitis.

This condition requires medical treatment to prevent damage to the eyes and other organs. According to the AAO, treatment may include drainage, surgery to remove dead tissue, and antibiotics.

Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a type of cancer that can affect the eye area in rare cases. According to the Survey of Ophthalmology, a person with lymphoma will experience swelling and a visible lump or tumor. Doctors may treat lymphoma using radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

Causes of swelling on both sides

Swelling under both eyes may have a variety of causes, such as:

Bags under the eyes

A person may notice mild swelling under the eyes when they wake up in the morning. The AAO note that this can occur due to aging, fluid collecting under the eyes during sleep, or both.

Smoking, lack of sleep, fluid retention, and allergies make it more likely that bags will develop under the eyes. Getting enough sleep, sleeping with the head in a slightly elevated position, and cool compresses may help reduce their appearance.

Allergies

Allergens, such as pollen and pet dander, can irritate the eyes, causing an allergic reaction. Symptoms include eye swelling, itching, burning, and tearing. A person with this condition may also have other allergy symptoms, such as a stuffy nose, sneezing, or an itchy throat.

If swelling in the under-eye area is the result of an allergic reaction, taking an over-the-counter (OTC) allergy medication, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) may help reduce the swelling. A person should read the package instructions carefully for proper dosing.

A severe allergic reaction may cause anaphylaxis, which is a medical emergency that causes hives, swollen airways, and difficulty breathing.

Conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis occurs due to a bacterial or viral eye infection. It causes bloodshot, irritated eyes that may itch, burn, or hurt. A bacterial eye infection may produce white or yellow pus.

Viral conjunctivitis usually affects both eyes, but a bacterial infection may start in one eye and spread to both. Conjunctivitis is contagious, so a person with these symptoms should avoid touching the eyes and see a doctor for treatment.

Morbihan disease

According to a review in Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, this rare condition can cause severe swelling under the eye and on the upper cheekbones.

Doctors consider the condition a form of rosacea, which causes the skin on the face to redden or darken. Doctors treat Morbihan disease with steroids and sometimes minor surgery to drain the excess fluid.

Organ failure

A person can experience eye swelling in both eyes due to organ failure. This includes heart, kidney, or liver failure. Each of these conditions affects the body’s ability to regulate fluid balance, which will often cause swelling in the feet and other areas of the body.

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Home remedies

The following remedies for swollen eyes at home may help address your condition and provide relief before calling the doctor.

Try a cool compress

A cool compress can help relieve eye inflammation and soothe irritated skin. Place a damp, cool washcloth over eyes for 20 to 30 minutes at a time for relief. An ice pack will work as well — just remember to add a cloth buffer (such as a towel) between your eyes and the ice pack to avoid direct contact with skin.

Cold spoons may also soothe swollen eyes. Place two spoons in the freezer until cold, then hold them over your eyes as you would with an ice pack or cool washcloth. Applying a small amount of pressure with the spoons can help stimulate blood flow and redirect any built up fluid away from the eyes, but remember to be gentle.

Cold cucumber slices and even chilled teething rings have also been used to soothe swollen eyes.

Use tea bags

Tea bags can help reduce eye inflammation due to the tannins and caffeine content. Some varieties like green tea also include an anti-inflammatory compound called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) to help the cause.

For proper use, steep tea and let the bags cool in the refrigerator for 20 minutes or so before applying to eyes. Then leave the cool bags on eyes for up to 30 minutes.

Never put hot tea bags over your eyes.

Take over-the-counter medication

Allergy medications as well as pain relievers that are available over-the-counter may help with managing pain and inflammation. Depending on what caused the swelling, one may provide better relief than another.

For swollen eyes caused by an allergic reaction or seasonal allergies, antihistamines such as cetirizine (Zyrtec), loratadine (Claritin) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl) may provide aid.

If swollen eyes were caused by an injury, ibuprofen (Advil) may help bring down swelling and inflammation. Ibuprofen is recommended instead of acetaminophen (Tylenol), as acetaminophen is not an anti-inflammatory medication. However, both ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help with pain relief.

Take a break from cosmetics

Cosmetics and facial cleansers that come close to the eyes could be causing irritation and swelling. If you suspect this is the problem, stop your current makeup or cleansing routine until swelling clears up.

If taking a break from a particular product helps, replace it with hypoallergenic or sensitive formulas. Aside from makeup and cleansers, hair products like hair sprays and gels could also cause irritation.

Change your diet

Too much sugar can cause inflammation throughout the body, including the eyes. Try to cut back on your sugar intake, and you may notice a difference in eyes that constantly appear swollen.

Hydration is also important for your eye health, so be sure to get enough water every day (at least eight glasses, though this is subjective), and cut back on caffeine and alcohol intake, as these can cause dehydration.

Use eye drops

Lubricated eye drops (natural tears) may help soothe the redness and discomfort that comes with swollen eyes. You can find a large variety of eye drops over-the-counter, but avoid “anti-red” or “whitening” properties, as these can make conditions worse.

For severe swelling and redness, an eye doctor may need to prescribe special eye drops. In any case, be sure to follow directions and avoid underusing or overusing products.

Preventing swollen eyes at home

If you frequently suffer from swollen eyes, avoiding triggers is critical. Regularly taking allergy medications and avoiding irritants such as certain eye makeup, pollen, dust, pet dander and chlorine from swimming pools can help stop the problem of swollen eyes before it begins.

If you play sports, consider wearing protective eyewear like sport glasses or goggles in order to prevent eye injuries that may cause swollen eyes.

For the overall health of your eyes, see an eye doctor once a year for an annual eye exam and evaluation.

Bottom Line

A person can develop a swollen under-eye area for a variety of reasons. In many cases, the cause is mild and will improve with OTC medication, cool or warm compresses, and keeping the area clean.

In some cases, a person may need medical attention. If there are signs of infection, such as eye redness, pain, or discharge, or the swelling is severe, a person should see their doctor.

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