The worst thing about waking up with red, bloodshot eyes isn't the fact that they instantly make you look sick and/or hungover. It's that usually they're accompanied by itching (if it's allergies or irritation) or a headache (if you maybe had too much wine the night before).
"Eye 'redness' can be caused by a number of factors, including genetics, anatomy, past surgery, overuse of vasoconstrictive eye drops, allergy, infection, etc." and exacerbated by irritation or inflammation on the eye's surface, says optometrist Jeffrey Kegarise. In short, bloodshot eyes aren't fun—particularly if you're already not feeling great. To see how to prevent and deal with red eyes, we consulted Kegarise and Andrew Iwach, MD.
Meet the Expert
Of course, if your symptoms are unusual or last longer than a few days, contact your eye doctor. For cases that aren't serious, we've rounded up the best home remedies and helpful tips to decrease eye redness.
Below are eight expert-approved ways to deal with red eyes that don't require a trip to the doctor's office.
Try Heat Therapy
"Heat actually helps the oil go through the glands," says Iwach, which should help reduce irritation.
"It is these tear glands that when partially blocked (think: candle wax or toothpaste) increase inflammation on the surface of the eye and promote a redness response," adds Kegarise. "It may take a few weeks, yet heat will effectively improve the appearance of the eyelids and eyes by minimizing the inflammation and hyperosmolarity (less water/increased salts and stuff) in the tear film that promotes a redness response in the body."
Kegarise's DIY heat therapy entails placing a warm hard-boiled egg, a potato in a warm water-soaked paper towel, or a microwaved rice bag (make sure it's not too hot) on the surface of your closed eyelids. "Do this as hot as you can (without any burning of the lids!), as often as you can, for as long as you can. Ideally, even one time per day for 10 minutes is effective. Once completed, press inward (with clean fingers), on the eyelid, rolling the fingers toward the middle plane of the eye in an upward direction for the lower lids and a downward direction for the upper lids," instructs Kegarise. However, if you're not a fan of creating your own compress, you can also try to keep a couple of eye masks around. Spacemasks makes a Self-Heating Eye Mask ($24), which is one of our faves.
Apply a Cold Compress
On the other side of the temperature spectrum, Iwach says applying cold temperatures to your eyes can help reduce inflammation and redness and make your eyeballs feel better. This can be a cool washcloth (just ensure that it's soft and clean to reduce/prevent irritation) or even cucumber slices. Simply place your cucumber slices in the fridge beforehand for maximum cooling relief.
When you don't blink enough, your eyes aren't properly lubricated, which can cause redness: "We live in a digital world and when we do close work on a computer, laptop, tablet, or cell phone, we tend to stare and this decreases the blink rate. It also tends to cause a cramping-like fatigue in the focusing and converging muscles of the eye," says Kegarise. If you spend a lot of time on your phone or computer, try taking "blink breaks" every few minutes to keep the moisture balance of your eyes intact.
Kegarise explains how the simple, yet effective "20/20 blink rule" will help you work longer and more comfortably, as well as minimize a common cause of redness in the eyes. "When on the computer, every 20 minutes, look away for 20 seconds at a distance target and squeeze-blink your eyes firmly two times. Firm blinking also forces tear glands to release the oily output as a contribution to the tears. This oily layer reduces dry eye by keeping the tears in contact with the eye and not allowing them to evaporate. Dry eyes naturally force a body response to increase permeability of the blood vessels and, thus, redness."
Take Breaks From Wearing Makeup
Unfortunately, according to Iwach, your makeup could be causing your red eyes. And he doesn't just mean makeup like eyeliner and mascara. Even your face powder might be a culprit. Try weaning yourself off different products one at a time for several days and take note of the state of your eyes to pinpoint what's bothering you.
Clean Your Lids and Lashes
Be sure to clean the base of your lashes, as this may be where irritants congregate because there are oil glands along the margins of your eyes. Sometimes this oil accumulates, which attracts irritants: "Ultimately, cleaning the lids regularly will minimize the base of the eyelash buildup of oils, flakes, follicle mites (yuck)-all of which can get onto the surface of the eyes and cause redness," says Kegarise. "Once you have successfully noticed an improvement in feeling or decreased redness, you can reduce to a maintenance level of two times per week or whatever seems to be appropriate for your individual eyes."
To get started, "Wash and scrub your eyelids with warm water and a washcloth every morning," he says. "Take a clean, warm washcloth, close your eyes, and rub vigorously on the upper and lower eyelid margins and base of the eyelashes for 20 seconds. Baby shampoo or other 'non-tear, gentle' liquid soap can be added. Rinse with warm water. You may feel less scratchiness right away, and/or it may take some time to feel a less gritty sensation."
Wear Sunglasses When You're Outside
Taking preventative measures, while not a treatment per se, is just as important (if not more so) when it comes to proper eye care. This feels intuitive, but some people don't love the look of sunglasses, so they grin and bear it without paying attention to the damage the sun might be causing. If you're dealing with red eyes, it's time to let that notion go.
Don't Sit Under the AC
On the other hand, if you're inside, Iwach says to make a note of where you sit in your office or in your home. Are you near a fan? A vent? A window? If you notice you have red, irritated eyes, it could be from the air blowing in your face. Removing yourself from the irritant may be your best bet for avoiding red eyes in the first place.
Use Artificial Tears
The most obvious—and probably least time-consuming—option is to use artificial tears (aka eye drops). Iwach calls them the safest, simplest solution for irritated eyes because they can help flush irritants out and combat dryness.
According to our experts, these simple techniques work to remedy eye redness by combating its major causes: surface inflammation, hyperosmolarity, and irritation. However, they're neither foolproof nor magic. "It goes without saying that no amount of natural therapy can overcome redness associated with too little sleep or too much alcohol or certain medicinal or recreational drug use," says Kegarise. "Get enough sleep, take care of your body, and use these tips to take care of your eyes."
Cleveland Clinic. Photokeratitis. Updated December 16, 2020.