Sep 09, 2014 1:00 AM

Author: Office of Public Affairs

Red eyes may be caused by anything from a poor night’s sleep to a more serious medical condition. Beyond that, they’re just plain annoying. But, as Mark Mifflin, MD, an ophthalmologist with University of Utah's Moran Eye Center warns, attempts to whiten eyes often do more harm than good.

Here’s How to Safely Reduce Eye Redness

Safe treatment starts with a professional exam. Many factors, including dry eye, eyelid inflammation, allergy, skin type, smoking, and exposure to dust or chemicals can cause or contribute to eye redness. 

Preservative free artificial tears or prescription eye drops prescribed by a licensed eye care provider can help, says Mifflin. He also recommends getting enough sleep, eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, and protecting the eyes from UV rays and dry air.

Avoid any eye drops or other medications that promise to reduce redness. “Generally these medicines temporarily narrow blood vessels. The effect may last for several hours, but they are always followed by rebound dilation,” says Mifflin. “The abnormal constriction and expansion may interfere with the body’s normal defenses and impair its response to external toxins or inflammation.” He also says that nearly all of these eye drops contain medications or preservatives which can be toxic to the surface of the eye when used repeatedly.

Just say “No” to any cosmetic surgery that claims to whiten the eye. These procedures strip normal membranes and blood vessels on the surface of the eye, sometimes in combination with strong chemicals. “Recently there have been many reports of impaired healing, infection, and even melting of the white of the eye,” says Mifflin. “Sometimes these complications don’t show up for months—sometimes for years--and they can include vision loss, or even blindness.” One exception, says Mifflin, is the removal of sunlight-related scar tissue (called pterygia). These procedures, performed by skilled ophthalmologists, are usually done to protect or restore vision, and only after more conservative treatments have been unsuccessful.

Mifflin warns that sometimes discoloration of the white of the eyes can be a sign of a serious medical condition. For example, a yellow tinge could signify liver disease, or a dramatic increase in red might be due to an abnormality of the blood vessels inside the head or neck. Once again, consulting an ophthalmologist is a good place to start.

red eyes pterygia

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