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When Is Eye Pain an Emergency?

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You’ve likely heard from your doctor before that you should never ignore pain, but it can be difficult to know whether you need a regular appointment or emergency care. You can experience pain for several eye-related reasons, such as when you have an infection or something stuck in your eye. 

If your eyes hurt, how do you know when it’s an emergency? Continue reading to learn more about eye pain, including what causes it and when to seek emergency care. 

What is Eye Pain? 

Eye pain can happen on your eye’s surface or within the deeper structures of your eye, known as ocular and orbital pain. Pain on your eye’s surface is often described as itching, burning, or shooting pain. Pain within the eye can feel like a throbbing or aching sensation. 

Ocular pain usually occurs due to foreign objects, infections, trauma, and other irritation. Orbital pain occurs when underlying issues affect your eye health. 

Eye pain is common, and it’s rarely a serious concern. Your discomfort should resolve with time, but some eye conditions are considered an emergency

Additional Symptoms

Eye pain can present on its own or alongside several other symptoms, depending on your condition. These additional symptoms include: 

  • Worsened vision
  • Vision loss
  • Clear or colored discharge
  • Foreign body sensation
  • Headache
  • Light sensitivity
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Red eyes
  • Tearing
  • Crusted shut eyes

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms alongside eye pain, your optometrist can help determine the cause of your problem during a comprehensive eye exam

What Causes Eye Pain? 

The cause of your eye pain can range from general irritation or infection to eye diseases. Some causes of eye pain resolve on their own, while others require treatment. Causes of eye pain include

  • Allergies
  • Blepharitis (eyelid inflammation) 
  • Chalazion (eyelid cyst)
  • Cluster headache
  • Eye surgery complication
  • Contact lens problem
  • Corneal abrasion (scratch) 
  • Corneal herpetic infections 
  • Dry eyes
  • Ectropion (outwardly turned eyelid)
  • Entropion (inwardly turned eyelid)
  • Eyelid infection
  • Foreign object in the eye
  • Glaucoma
  • Injury
  • Iritis (inflammation of the iris)
  • Keratitis (inflammation of the cornea) 
  • Optic neuritis (inflammation of the optic nerve) 
  • Pink eye
  • Scleritis (inflammation of the sclera) 
  • Sty (a red, painful lump near the eyelid)
  • Uveitis (inflammation of the uvea) 

Many different eye conditions cause pain, but how do you know when you should be concerned? Eye pain is generally temporary, but some problems require timely medical treatment. Understanding when eye pain is an emergency can help you protect your ocular health and vision. 

A woman wearing casual clothes in front of a white background holding her eye with her hand and mouth open as she groans in pain

When is Eye Pain an Emergency? 

If experiencing eye pain, there are a couple of ways to determine if you need emergency care. You should seek treatment as soon as possible if

  • Pain is severe or accompanied by headache, fever, or light sensitivity 
  • Your vision changes suddenly
  • Pain presents alongside nausea or vomiting
  • A foreign object or chemical enters your eye
  • You see halos around lights
  • You have swelling in or around your eyes
  • You cannot open your eyes or have difficulty moving them 
  • You have blood or puss coming from your eyes

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, visit your optometrist or an emergency room as soon as possible. In the meantime, there are a few things you can do to protect your eye health. 

What to Do in an Eye Emergency 

You should visit a medical professional as soon as possible if you’re having an eye emergency. For some conditions requiring emergent care like acute angle-closure glaucoma or pink eye, getting to your optometrist’s office is your priority. 

Immediate care can help protect your eye health and reduce discomfort as you seek emergency treatment. In emergencies like foreign objects and chemical exposure, you need to take swift action before visiting your optometrist. 

Chemical Contact to the Eye

Chemical contact from solids, liquids, powders, and aerosols can damage your eyes. Your eyes can become damaged within 5 minutes of exposure, so you must rinse your eyes right away. 

Find a clean water source and flush your eyes for 15 to 20 minutes before seeking emergency care. Your eyes may feel better after a few moments of flushing, but continue to remove as much chemical residue as possible. 

Foreign Object in the Eye

Foreign objects can enter your eyes, such as eyelashes, dust, or larger metallic objects. Your eyes are likely irritated and painful, but avoid rubbing your eyes or trying to remove anything stuck with force.

Never try to remove objects lodged within your eye, but you can attempt to remove smaller objects with water: 

  • Wash your hands with soap & water before touching your eye
  • Locate the foreign object in the mirror
  • Flush your eye with water & blink several times to loosen the object
  • Wipe & dry your eye with a clean source

Know When to Seek Emergency Treatment 

Eye pain is associated with many conditions, and it can be hard to know when you need emergency care. Knowing when eye pain is an emergency can help you protect your long-term eye health. Contact your eye doctor as soon as possible if you’re experiencing eye pain alongside other concerning symptoms.


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  • Written by Justin Bazan

    Dr. Justin Bazan is a 2004 SUNY College of Optometry graduate. He established Park Slope Eye in 2008 with the goal of providing high quality eyecare and incredible eyewear for the neighborhood. He has a true passion for optometry and stay up to date with the current research and trends. He is active in the profession and holds several leadership positions on the local, state and national levels. Dr. Bazan is a Park Slope local and can often be seen out in the neighborhood so be sure to say Hi next time you see him!

    More Articles by Justin Bazan

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