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Red Eye: Should I go to the Emergency Room?

mud in your eye

At some point, you might have been the victim of this scenario: you rub your eye really hard, or walk into something, or just wake up with a red, painful, swollen eye. However it happened, your eye is red, you’re possibly in pain, and you’re worried.


What do you do next?

Going to the Emergency Room is probably not your best bet.

Your first reaction should be to go see the eye doctor.

There are many causes for a red eye, especially a non-painful red eye, most are relatively benign and may resolve on their own, even without treatment.

Case in point, everyone fears the dreaded “pink eye,” which is really just a colloquial term for conjunctivitis, an inflammation or infection of the clear translucent layer (conjunctiva) overlying the white part of our eye (sclera). Most cases are viral, which is kind of like having a cold in your eye (and we all know there is no cure for the common cold). Going to the ER likely means you’re going to be prescribed antibiotic drops, which DO NOT treat viral eye infections. Your eye doctor may be able to differentiate if the conjunctivitis is viral or bacterial and you can be treated accordingly.

Another problem with going to the ER for your eye problem is that some Emergency Rooms are not equipped with the same instruments that your eye doctor’s office has, or the ER docs may not be well versed in utilizing the equipment they do have.  The primary instrument that your eye doctor uses to examine your eye is called a slit lamp. The best way to diagnosis your red eye is a thorough examination with a slit lamp.   Some eye conditions that cause red eyes require steroid drops for treatment. NO ONE should be prescribing steroids without looking at the eye under a slit lamp. If given a steroid for certain eye conditions that may cause a red eye (Herpes infection), the problem can be made much worse.

Bottom line: if you have an eye problem, see an eye doctor. Going to the ER with an eye problem can result in long periods of waiting time.  Remember, you are there along with people having heart attacks, strokes, bad motor vehicle accidents and the like; sometimes “my eye is red” doesn’t get the highest priority.  Whenever you have a sudden problem with your eye your first move should be to pick up the phone and call an eye doctor. Most eye doctor offices have an emergency phone number in case these problems arise, and again, if there is no pain or vision loss associated with the red eye, it is likely not an emergency.

Other "red eye" blogs:

Is it safe to use redness relief drops every day?
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Monday, 09 December 2019

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