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Common eye problems: red, watery, dry or bloodshot eyes

Jane Garton ( 30 June 2017 )

Dry eyes, watery eyes, bloodshot eyes, floaters and flashes - find out what causes the most common eye problems and what you can do to help yourself

Senior man putting in eye drops
Artificial tears can help with dry eyes

As we age problems such as dry eyes, watery eyes and floaters can become more common. ‘But the good news is they are rarely serious and usually nothing your local optometrist or your doctor won’t be able to sort out,’ says Iain Anderson, optometrist and chairman of the Eyecare Trust.

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Floaters and flashes

‘The fluid in the eye can deteriorate naturally with age and result in tiny pieces of protein floating in the vitreous humour, the clear substance inside the eye,’ explains Iain. These can lead to you seeing small dark specks or ‘cobwebs’ that are most obvious when looking at a plain background like a white wall.

Should I worry? ‘Floaters are usually harmless,’ says lain. If, however, they suddenly increase, you start to experience flashes or you start to see small brown floaters you need to get them checked by your optometrist or doctor as soon as possible. A sudden shower of floaters or flashes could indicate a burst blood vessel in your eye or a detached retina (when the retina separates from its attachments to the back of the eyeball which can lead to loss of vision).

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Dry eyes

‘Dry eyes become more common as we age and can be uncomfortable,’ says Iain. They are usually caused by an imbalance in the constituents that make up tear fluid. They may also be a side effect of certain over-the-counter and prescription medications such as diuretics, beta-blockers, anti-histamines and some types of anti-depressants. A smoky atmosphere or central heating can also dry out the eyes.

Should I worry? As with any eye problem, it is important to find the cause before getting treatment - see an optometrist for a diagnosis. Artificial tears bought over the counter at the pharmacy may be all that’s needed.

Learn more about treatments for dry eyes

Watery eyes

We need tears to lubricate our eyes and help wash away dust and debris. Normally they drain away through the tear ducts, but as we get older these ducts can become narrowed. As a result the tears have nowhere to go and eyes become watery.

Should I worry? ‘Watery eyes are more of a nuisance than anything else,’ explains Iain. ‘You can have an operation to help solve the problem, but it has a limited success rate.’

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Blepharitis or swollen eyelids

Otherwise known as swollen eyelids, blepharitis is usually caused by an allergy or bacterial infection. It tends to be a chronic condition that comes and goes.

Should I worry? If you suddenly develop blepharitis you should get yourself checked by your doctor to establish the cause. Cleaning eyelids with warm water can be very effective. Look out also for lid wipes available over the counter at your local pharmacy.

Bloodshot eye

This can occur spontaneously or as a result of a knock. ‘It is usually caused by a leaking blood capillary between the conjunctiva - the white of the eye - and the clear skin that covers it,’ says Iain.

Should I worry? ‘You can expect to look grim for a couple of days, but then your eye should return to normal,’ says Iain. If you keep on getting bloodshot eyes you should see your GP to check out for any underlying causes such as high blood pressure.

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How to protect your eyes

  • Get your eyes tested at least every two years.
  • Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from UV damage. Look out for ones bearing the CE mark and British Standard BS EN 1836: 2005, which ensure they offer a safe level of UV protection.
  • Eat a healthy balanced diet with plenty of antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables. Kale, spinach and carrots are good choices.
  • Go for oily fish such as herring, mackerel, sardines, swordfish and tuna. All contain omega-3 fatty acids, which may help prevent dry eyes.
  • Take frequent screen breaks when working at a computer and make sure your monitor is level with your line of vision.
  • Keep rooms humidified as dry air can aggravate eye problems.

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For more information visit The Eyecare Trust

Please note

The information above is intended as a guide only. If you are in any doubt you should always consult your GP or optometrist as soon as possible.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.