You don’t want to take risks when it comes to your eye health. Any type of eye pain or discomfort can make it hard to function—and sometimes, it can be an indicator of a more serious problem, such as an infection or a vision-impairing condition.
More than 3.4 million Americans 40 and older are blind or visually impaired, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you’re experiencing one of these symptoms, it’s time to make an appointment with your eye doctor.
Difficulty seeing at night or while driving
“Night driving is the best benchmark of when your vision is starting to drop off,” says Michelle Andreoli, MD, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). That’s because everyone has a harder time seeing something in the dark or in the far distance—so if your eyes are already struggling, it’ll become even more noticeable in these situations.
The solution could be as simple as a new glasses prescription, or it could be a sign of something more problematic, like a cataract that’s beginning to form. An ophthalmologist will be able to assess your night vision and determine the best plan of action.
Red or pink eyes
“Red or pink in the eye can be very complicated and very dangerous,” warns Dr. Andreoli, who is an ophthalmologist at the Wheaton Eye Clinic in Wheaton, Illinois. It’s associated with a variety of conditions, including conjunctivitis (an inflammation of the conjunctiva, a thin layer of transparent tissue that covers the whites of your eyes and inner eyelids), allergies, or even an uncommon type of glaucoma.
(Most often glaucoma, a condition often caused by a buildup of pressure inside the eye, has no symptoms at all.) It’s fine to see your primary care doctor first, but if you still have red or pink eyes after 24 to 48 hours, it’s worth giving an ophthalmologist a call. “Something may be more complex than a primary care doctor is able to detect,” says Dr. Andreoli.
Sensitivity to light
This usually accompanies some kind of inflammation in the eye, according to Dr. Andreoli. The problem could be with your cornea, the thin transparent layer that covers your iris and pupil, or it might go deeper into the eye.
Whatever it is, it should be addressed quickly, as some conditions that can cause sensitivity to light may lead to scarring, which in some cases can be permanent. However, light sensitivity can also be caused by conditions completely unrelated to the eye, like allergies, a viral illness, or migraine headache.
Blurry vision or trouble focusing on objects
There are a variety of explanations for why you might have these sudden vision changes, so it’s important that your eye doctor does a complete exam to determine what the problem is. They might prescribe eye drops, pills, or even surgery to fix the problem.
A good rule of thumb: “If a patient is noticing a change in the quality of their vision, it is a good time to make an appointment to see their ophthalmologist,” says Dr. Andreoli.
If your eyes hurt, don’t wait around to see if they get better. “Eye pain is never normal,” says Dr. Andreoli. Acute angle-closure glaucoma, for example, causes severe pain—and worse, it can make you go blind in a matter of days.
This is an uncommon type of glaucoma that’s considered a medical emergency and also has symptoms like blurry vision, headache, nausea, and vomiting. More common causes of eye pain can be an infection, irritation due to a foreign object, a scratched cornea, dry eyes, allergies, headaches, or inflammation for a variety of reasons.
So even if your eye is just slightly bothering you, it’s worth at least calling an ophthalmologist to see what they think.
Diagnosis of a condition that affects the eyes
There are a number of chronic conditions (think: diabetes, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and inflammatory bowel disease, just to name a few) that can affect your eyes.
Each condition manifests differently; Diabetes, for example, can cause blurry vision, while those with lupus are more likely to notice pain or light sensitivity, according to Dr. Andreoli. To avoid any vision problems after a diagnosis of one of these conditions, check in with an eye doctor to see what they recommend.