Red and Swollen Eyes

Our eyes are constantly under attack from environmental elements like bright light, airborne particles, and bacteria. From time to time most of us get sore eyes – eyes that are red and feel sore, swollen eyelids, and that “gritty eye” feeling that means something is wrong. Because of the wide range of irritants the eyes are exposed to on a daily basis, it’s not always easy to determine what is causing eye problems.

So-called “red eye” or, more correctly, conjunctivitis, has three main causes and is always the result of a contaminant being introduced to the eye directly – very often because the eye has been rubbed by a contaminated finger or palm of the hand. Conjunctivitis can be caused by a virus, in which case no treatment is possible and the sufferer simply has to wait – possibly up to several weeks – for the body’s immune system to defeat the infection. Conjunctivitis can also be caused by bacterial infection, in which case antibiotic eye drops are an extremely effective remedy. Finally, red eye can also be caused by an allergic reaction to a foreign agent such as pollen. In this case, treatment with anti-histamines is the course of action.

If you’re not sure what is causing your conjunctivitis, you can take an anti-histamine and see if the symptoms reduce over the following hours. If the symptoms of red eye remain, you can stir table salt (sodium chloride) into warm water and then drop this warm water into your eyes. If the result is a discharge of mucus, the cause is probably bacterial (the salt water kills some of the bacteria by rupturing their cell membranes, which causes the mucus discharge). This is a strong indication that you should get antibiotic drops from your physician as soon as possible. But if neither the antihistamine nor the salt water has any effect, the cause is probably viral.

There is one additional possible cause of red eye, though it’s less frequent than the three causes given above. This last cause is a blockage of the tear ducts. When this happens, the eyes can’t self-lubricate and so become sore and often mildly infected. The remedy is for an optician to use a tiny syringe to suck out the material obstructing the tear ducts, after which the red eye will naturally clear up as the eyes’ function returns to normal.

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