Eye Health Central

Burning Eyes: Common Causes and Treatments

A Guide to Burning Eyes

Most people will experience burning eyes at least once in their life. Although most cases of burning eyes are benign and heal on their own, this symptom could signal a more serious underlying condition. People who experience burning eyes chronically and/or with symptoms like eye pain, redness, or discharge, might have an issue that requires immediate medical attention.

In this article, we cover some of the more common causes and risk factors for burning eyes, we’ll also explore some of the best things you could do to reduce burning eyes at home and explain when to seek medical attention.

Common Causes Of Burning Eyes

Sunscreen Smear Or Soapy Splash

Sunscreen Smear Or Soapy Splash - burning eyes

You need to be especially careful when applying lotions, sunscreen, or makeup products around your eyes. This also goes for soaps, shampoos, and other ointments you might use while washing your face. It’s extremely easy to get certain irritating chemicals in your eyes that cause a nasty burning sensation.

If you do happen to get some kind of irritating compound in your eyes, then you should try to wash out your eyes as quickly as possible. While there might still be some residual redness after you rinse your eyes, you should experience a reduction in eye stinging within a few minutes.

Of course, if you happen to be working with especially harsh chemicals like bleach, paint, or gasoline, then you need to be extremely vigilant about your eye health. It is advised you wear some form of eye protection whenever handling these products. If you do happen to get one of these chemicals in your eyes, then you need to go to an emergency room ASAP.

A Burning Allergic Reaction

Another common reason for burning eyes is some types of allergies. Whether it’s dog fur, dander, mascara, or mold, allergic reactions are always caused by an overreaction of the immune system to a perceived threat.

Allergies can range widely in severity from a daily nuisance to a life-threatening condition. Anyone who frequently experiences allergic reactions should speak with their doctor about potential triggers and treatments.

In addition to avoiding the offending allergen, most people with allergies experience great relief using rewetting eye drops and/or antihistamines. If indoor irritants cause your allergies to flare up, then you might want to invest in a high-quality air purifier. Whatever you do, avoid rubbing your eyes because this could make your burning eye symptoms worse.

A Side Note On Onions

Even if you don’t have allergies, you’ve most likely experienced burning, watery eyes while slicing an onion for dinner. The reason this phenomenon happens is due to the chemical syn-propanethial-S-oxide that is released while cutting an onion and increases tear production.

The easiest way to reduce this uncomfortable sensation is to place your onion in the refrigerator a few hours before you want to cut it. This strategy will dramatically slow the release of syn-propanethial-S-oxide as you cut your nutritious veggie.

Swimmer’s Eye: The Dangers Of Chlorine

People who are involved in sports like swimming or diving should already be familiar with burning eyes caused by chlorinated pool water. While chlorine is great at getting rid of harmful bacteria in water, it also has an adverse effect on eye proteins.

It’s essential for anyone who is exposed to chlorine on a regular basis to wear custom-fitted goggles when they’re in the pool. These airtight goggles will prevent this irritating compound from touching your eyes whilst allowing you to see clearly underwater.


 Conjunctivitis is better known as “pink eye,” and is the most common infection causing eyes to burn. Conjunctivitis is a fairly common eye infection that causes symptoms like eye redness, burning, and pain.

This eye condition is usually brought on in one of three ways: allergic reaction, bacterial infection, or a virus. Patients who have the allergic version of this conjunctivitis tend to recover with adequate rest and hydration within a few days. Anyone who has the bacterial or viral versions of conjunctivitis, however, will require medication from a primary care physician.

Telltale signs of a conjunctivitis infection include eye discharge and severe eye pain. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should see their doctor as soon as possible.

While you’re recovering from pink eye, it’s important to practice good hygiene so you don’t spread this disease to others. Wash your hands frequently and refrain from using contact lenses or makeup during this time. Also, be sure to change any towels or sheets that come in contact with your face often.

Post-Surgery Burning Eyes

Both cosmetic and medical eye surgeries carry with them many potential side effects including burning eyes. Other potential complications of most eye surgeries include visual halos, temporary blurred vision, astigmatism, and eye redness.

Thankfully, most of these minor side effects clear away within a few days after your surgery is complete. If you experience severe side effects like eye pain or vision loss, however, then you need to get in touch with your doctor ASAP.

Whatever surgical procedure you’re considering, it’s important to discuss all possible complications with your doctor beforehand.

Could You Have Dry Eye Syndrome?

Another potential culprit of burning eyes is a condition known as dry eye syndrome. It’s now estimated that at least one-third of UK residents over the age of 65 have some degree of this syndrome. With the widespread diffusion of electronic screens, this number is expected to rise across all demographics in the ensuing years.

Usually, you will experience a few other symptoms alongside burning eyes if you have dry eye syndrome. A few other common symptoms related to dry eye syndrome include itchy eyes, eye redness, and eye soreness.

Doctors still aren’t sure why some people are more susceptible to dry eyes than others, but it might be due to a dysfunction in the Meibomian glands. These eye glands are essential for producing certain oils that keep tears from evaporating. People who have dry eyes tend to produce less of these essential oils.

There’s no cure for dry eye syndrome, but you could use over-the-counter rewetting drops for temporary symptom relief. More long-term treatment options for dry eye sufferers include limiting electronic screen exposure and getting plenty of natural sunlight every day.

Word Of Warning For Contacts Wearers

People who wear contact lenses could be at an increased risk of suffering symptoms like burning eyes. 

If contact lenses aren’t properly fitted properly or if they are dirty or damaged then chances are you will experience a varying degree of eye discomfort. 

It’s also possible to have an adverse reaction to contact lens solution. Be sure to bring this issue up if you frequently experience burning eye symptoms after putting your contacts in your eyes. Your optometrist should be able to recommend another brand of solution.

Most optometrists recommend patients use daily disposable lenses to help naturally increase eye comfort. Since you throw these lenses away after one day’s use, there’s far less risk of eye infection or uncomfortable build-up of lipid deposits.

It’s important that all contact lens wearers follow good hygiene practices to help avoid painful eye symptoms. This includes washing your hands before handling contact lenses and throwing away lenses as soon as their wear time has expired.

One last note: you should always take out your contacts before swimming, showering, or sleeping. Allowing lenses to come into contact with water can damage the cornea and increase your risk of developing a major eye infection known as keratitis.

Whatever You Do, Don’t Rub Your Eyes!

No matter what’s causing your burning eyes, it’s never a good idea to rub your eyes to relieve itchy symptoms. Not only will rubbing your eyes increase the burning sensation, but it could also cause damage to your cornea and easily spread infections to your eyes.

A better way to relieve burning eye symptoms is to rinse your eyes under cool water and then pat your face dry with a clean towel. You could also place a cold compress over your eyes for a few seconds to help with inflammation. If you’re not in a setting where it’s appropriate to use towels or compresses, then you could use a couple of rewetting drops for quick symptom relief.

When In Doubt, seek Medical Help

As you can see, there are many reasons why someone could be experiencing burning eyes. If your burning eyes don’t disappear after a few days, or they are accompanied by more severe symptoms like eye pain, then you should see an optometrist or your family doctor to find out if there is an underlying cause. 

Author: John Dreyer Optometrist Bsc(Hons), MCOPTOM, DipCLP
Created: 10 May 2023, Last modified: 20 May 2024