How to tell the difference between dry eyes, eye allergies and eye infections

Eye conditions are very common and there are a number of different types which can affect us, often at any point of our lifetime. Many are fairly minor and will resolve themselves without intervention. However, others are chronic or serious and need an eye doctor to diagnose them and recommend the most effective treatment to preserve your eyesight and your quality of life.


Three of the most common, but largely mild eye conditions that can affect us are dry eye, eye allergies, and eye infections. They share many symptoms which can make it difficult to tell them apart, but there are also some definite differences too. Here’s how to tell the difference between dry eyes, eye allergies, and eye infections, and what you should do if you think you are affected by any of these conditions.



Dry eyes will probably affect everyone at some point during their lifetime. This condition occurs when the eyes aren’t able to produce enough tear film (which our eyes rely on to be hydrated and move freely), or the tears that are produced aren’t good enough quality to be effective. Tear film is made from a combination of oils, water, and protein. The oils in tear film are produced by the meibomian glands. When they don’t work properly, such as when they are clogged by hardened lumps of oil, it prevents enough oil from reaching the tear film, meaning it isn’t as effective as it could be in hydrating and lubricating the eyes.


There are a few factors that can contribute to dry eyes. People who spend a lot of time in dry, dusty environments, who spend many hours on digital devices, who don’t drink enough water each day, are over the age of 50, who have specific medical conditions or take specific medications have been suggested to be more likely to suffer from dry eyes.



You may guess that dryness of the eyes is the main symptom associated with the condition. However, you may also experience other symptoms including:


  • A gritty sensation in the eyes


  • Eye fatigue


  • Mucus around the eyes


  • Sensitivity to light


  • Blurred vision


When someone has dry eyes, all symptoms are restricted to only affecting the eyes, rather than other parts of the body (which is often the case with eye allergies). The good news is that treating dry eyes is usually fairly easy, with lots of different options to choose from. These range from artificial tears and prescription eyedrops to medication and surgery.  



Eye allergies are extremely common too. These happen when the body decides that a normally harmless substance is actually dangerous and sets off defenses against it. Allergies affect the body in many ways, but many people find that it is their eyes that are one of the areas most affected. This is especially true if the allergen enters their body through their eyes – such as smoke or pollen. When the allergen is detected by the body, the body releases chemicals called histamines to fight it. Unfortunately, histamines also cause a range of side effects, and it’s these that we consider to be allergy symptoms. 


Some eye allergies are more common than others, with the most well-known including:


  • Pollen (tree, grass, and flower)


  • Animal dander


  • Dust


  • Smoke


  • Mold spores



Although eye allergies do cause symptoms that affect the eyes, they can also have a much wider effect on the body and your health. Symptoms include:


  • Swollen eyelids


  • Watery discharge from the eyes


  • Sensitivity to light


  • Redness of the eyes


  • Itchy eyes


  • Congestion, like a stuffy head or nose


  • Runny nose


  • Coughing or sneezing


People with eye allergies are usually prescribed antihistamines as their first line of treatment. These are a medication that is designed to control the release of histamine which should reduce the amount of or severity of the symptoms that you experience. If antihistamines don’t provide enough relief, there are other treatment options that you may be offered.



Eye infections are caused by harmful microorganisms like bacteria, viruses, or fungi. When these come into contact with any part of the eye, they can trigger infection. Most eye infections are caused by direct contact - by touching your eyes with unclean hands, such as when you put in or remove a contact lens.


There are many different types of eye infection depending on the microorganism that has caused it, and your eye doctor will diagnose the correct type before recommending the most effective treatment. Some of the most common eye infections include conjunctivitis, viral keratitis, and trachoma.



There are a wide range of symptoms associated with eye infections:


  • Eye redness


  • Eye pain


  • Discharge from the eyes


  • Excessive watering


  • Light sensitivity


  • Swollen eyelids


  • Itchy eyes


  • Blurred vision


Some types of eye infections will go away without treatment, but in most cases, you will be prescribed something to help, such as prescription antibiotic eye drops, ointments, or oral medications. It’s important to note that some eye infections can have serious implications for your long-term eye health, so it’s essential to get professional support if you think you may be affected.

For more information on telling the difference between dry eyes, eye infections, and eye allergies, please speak to our knowledgeable eye care specialists at Manchester Eyecare at (260) 306-3937 today.

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