What Causes Red Skin Around the Eyes: Eye Irritation Symptoms & Treatments

By Zina Semenovskaya, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
December 15, 2019

Having red skin around your eyes or red under your eyes can be a sign that your eyes are irritated. Eye irritation and redness can take many forms, such as having a red rash around the eyes or a red ring around the eyes. There are many different reasons why your eyes might feel irritated, and it’s important to know why so that you can differentiate between serious and non-serious eye problems.

Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about eye irritation symptoms and treatments, as well as related eye conditions.

Causes of Eye Redness and Irritation

There are many different causes of eye redness and irritation, including allergic and inflammatory reactions and infections. Inflammation of the eye vessels, located between the eye’s sclera (the white outer layer of the eyeball) and conjunctiva (tissue lining inside of eyelids), is the most common cause of redness. Normally, most of the vessels are invisible, but they can become red and inflamed when irritated or infected.

See below for different causes of inflammation.

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Environmental or lifestyle causes of redness around eyes

First, let’s go over environmental or lifestyle causes of eye redness:

  • Irritants: Multiple irritants and environmental exposures can cause inflammation, such as dry air, air pollution, dust, sun exposure, irritating makeup, and even marijuana use.
  • Allergies: Red, itchy, or swollen eyes can be a sign of allergic conjunctivitis. Typically with eye allergies, symptoms will occur in both eyes rather than just one.
  • Dry eye syndrome: Dry eye syndrome is one of the most common eye conditions. It happens due to a lack of lubrication on the eye’s surface. Risk factors include increased screen exposure, advanced age, and certain medications and medical conditions.

Did you know?

Growing older increases your likelihood of developing dry eye syndrome.

  • Individuals 50+ experience dry eyes more than their younger counterparts.
  • It happens due to tear production decreasing as you grow older.

Other conditions that cause redness around eyes

Here are some other conditions that cause redness on or around the eyes.

  • Corneal abrasion: Corneal abrasions can happen from overwearing contact lenses, or from anything rubbing against your eye’s surface, i.e. a tree branch or sand. Sometimes a small piece of debris from wood or metal will land in your eye, creating a foreign body and causing a persistent abrasion until it is removed. Untreated corneal abrasions can lead to bacterial infections and corneal ulcerations.
  • Conjunctivitis: Also called ‘pink eye’, conjunctivitis is inflammation of the eye’s conjunctiva. It can affect one or both eyes, and can be caused by a bacterial or viral infection, reaction to irritants, or allergens. Symptoms can include swollen eyelids, a gritty feeling in the eye, increased tearing, and pink or reddish discoloration to the eyes.
  • Eyelid dermatitis: Eyelid dermatitis can cause the skin on or around the eyelid to become red and swollen. It can be associated with contact dermatitis, which happens when the eyelid comes into contact with an irritating substance, or atopic dermatitis, which is a form of eczema and other chronic dry skin conditions.
  • Eyelid styes: Also known as a hordeolum, styes are eyelid infections that result in red, tender bumps around the edge of the eyelid. They can happen in the eyelid glands or at the base of an eyelash. They are caused by bacteria with symptoms including redness, tenderness, eyelid swelling, and pain.
  • Blepharitis: Blepharitis, or inflamed eyelids, can occur from dry eyes, a bacterial eyelid infection, parasites, or a fungal eyelid infection. It may be due to an increase in bacteria along the eyelid’s margins or due to blocked glands within the eyelids. Blepharitis often presents as the eyelids appearing red or swollen, and feelings of soreness or burning.

Eye Irritation Symptoms

Symptoms of eye irritation or eyelid irritation include:

  • Eye(s) appearing itchy or red
  • Eyes feeling scratchy
  • Eye pain
  • Eye redness: red skin around eyes or red ring around eyelid
  • Blurred vision
  • Increasing tearing or watery eyes

Additional eye infection symptoms to pay attention to

  • Other symptoms of eye irritation include:
  • Dried ‘goop’ or crusting on eyelashes
  • Light sensitivity
  • Blurred vision

Diagnosing Eye Irritation

When diagnosing eye irritation, I first take down a patient’s extensive health history and then do a full exam of the eyes and face, including the eyelids, cornea, and conjunctiva. I also check that they aren’t experiencing symptoms that could be indicators of something more serious, such as a fever. Many eye problems can be diagnosed with a comprehensive eye exam, but depending on what I find, I may also take a fluid or tissue sample to send to a lab where it will be made into a culture or checked under a microscope.

Treatments For Eye Redness and Irritation

Remedies for these conditions can vary depending on the underlying cause. For example, if the condition is bacterial, a corticosteroid or antibiotic might be prescribed. Eyedrops, creams, or oral medications may also be recommended. If an irritant, allergy, or other health issue is causing the symptoms, I will be sure to address these underlying issues as well.

I always advise my patients to avoid wearing makeup or contact lenses until the issue is fully resolved.

What You Can Do at Home

In addition to any treatments recommended by your doctor, you can consider trying these at home to help relieve your symptoms:

  • Washing the eye with a washcloth and mild soap
  • Applying a warm compress if the eyes are irritated or sore
  • Applying a cold compress if the eyes are swollen

Ways of preventing symptoms from spreading

  • Wash your pillowcases and towels daily if you have an eye infection or irritation. This can help prevent the symptoms from spreading to either your other eye or another member of your household.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Always store contact lenses correctly and make sure that you either toss them (if worn daily) or clean them as recommended.
  • Throw out and do not reuse contact lenses if you were wearing them when you developed the eye problem. Avoid wearing contact lenses until your eye condition has fully resolved.

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Most serious eye problems occur when the redness is accompanied by changes in your vision or eye pain. Examples of these include:

  • Orbital cellulitis: Orbital cellulitis is an infection that develops behind the membrane covering the front of the eyeball, called the orbital septum. It affects the muscle tissues and fat in the eye socket. Symptoms can include a red swollen eyelid, pain, discharge, difficulty opening the eye, and pain when looking in different directions. A milder form, called periorbital cellulitis, can precede this and should be treated immediately.
  • Shingles: Shingles can develop in the face and eyes, with the potential to cause serious, sometimes permanent problems with vision. The medical term for eye shingles is herpes zoster ophthalmicus. Symptoms can include eye irritation, eye itchiness, swelling and redness of the eyelids, and upper eyelid blistering.
  • Uveitis: Uveitis can be caused by infection, injury, or autoimmune disease. It is a form of eye inflammation that affects the eye’s middle layer of tissue, called the uvea. It can cause eye pain, redness, blurred vision, light sensitivity, and in serious cases, vision loss.

Besides the lifestyle and environmental causes and conditions listed above, an additional risk factor for red skin or red circles around the eyes is simply aging. Skin and the walls of your blood vessels become thinner as you age, which can cause the skin around the eyes to appear red.

When to See a Doctor

You should contact a doctor about your eye redness if you experience any of the following concerning symptoms:

  • Changes in vision or severe eye pain
  • Discharge from one or both eyes
  • Symptoms lasting longer than one week
  • Light sensitivity
  • Blood in your eyes, especially If you take blood thinner medications, such as warfarin or heparin

You should seek immediate medical help if you experience:

How K Health Can Help

K Health can help you quickly determine whether the red eye symptoms you’re experiencing warrant a doctor’s visit. Our doctors are also available to help you learn how to ease your symptoms and what you can do to help prevent them in the future.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Zina Semenovskaya, MD

Dr. Semenovskaya specializes in emergency medicine, and received her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College. She is currently the medical director at Remote Emergency Medicine Consulting, LLC and splits her time working clinically as an emergency medicine attending in California and Alaska. She is the first of our doctors to be fluent in Russian.

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