A lot of gross stuff can happen to your eye (we will spare you the pictures) and self-medicating with Visine would make any eyecare provider's skin crawl. Did you know there are some bacteria associated with contact lens wear that can actually eat through your cornea within 24 hours? That is not an easy fix if you need a corneal transplant and can result in loss of sight. Your eyes turning red can be everything from allergies or dryness – to inflammation – to an infection; bacterial or viral. This makes it extremely important to work with an eye doctor so that the right diagnosis can be made. The right diagnosis allows for the right treatment to be initiated. The wrong diagnosis, in turn, leads to the wrong treatment. This is especially important because not only can the wrong treatment (such as the wrong drops being prescribed) delay healing, but in certain cases the wrong treatment can actually make things worse.
What should I do if my eye feels or looks funny?
One of the first things you should do is find an eye doctor who sees eye infections or minor eye emergencies. Within both optometry and ophthalmology, there are doctors who see patients for eye infections and others who typically do not. A quick phone call will answer this question quickly and allow you to book an appointment.
If you are a contact lens wearer you have a greater risk of infection, especially if you abuse your contacts (ie overwearing, sleeping in your lenses, re-using solutions, etc.). There are so many ways to abuse your contacts and your eyes – Wearing them too long, sleeping in them, improper cleaning and improper storage are some of the common mistakes. You will hear people say “I have been doing this for years and my eyes are great.” It only takes one raging eye infection to stop contact wear indefinitely! Be smart and safe with your eyes. If you suspect an infection, it is often best to stop wearing your contact lenses and wear your glasses until you can get in to see the eye doctor.
Do NOT self-medicate or wait for it to go away on its own. Using the wrong medication or an expired medication can make things worse rather than better. Doing nothing is not the answer. If an irritated eye goes untreated (or mis-treated) it can result in long-term and irreversible damage – leaving you without 20/20 vision.
Who should I see?
Many people turn to an urgent care clinic when their eyes are bothering them. Unfortunately most urgent care clinics are not well equipped to diagnose and treat an ocular emergency effectively. Your first stop should be to an eye-care provider. Optometrists and ophthalmologists have the appropriate equipment and in-depth knowledge to properly treat ocular disease. More common than not, urgent care clinics will refer you to an eye-care provider depending on the severity of the case. So save yourself a trip, go directly to an optometrist or ophthalmologist. Don't you want to be seen by a doctor who has received years of training specific to the eyes and sees eye conditions all day every day?
What if my child has an eye infection?
Children are not small adults – you cannot put a booster seat under a kid and treat them like an adult. Certain eye infections are more common in adults while others are more common in children. This impacts which medication your eye doctor will prescribe. It is important that you take your child to a pediatric eye doctor – a pediatric ophthalmologist or residency-trained pediatric optometrist will best care for your child. Keep in mind that many doctors will say that they see children, but few have the advanced training to provide the level of care your child deserves. Pediatric eye doctors will know the safety of medications and age-appropriate dosages for your child based on their age and size.
Why is follow up important?
An eye that is 'mostly healed' is still infected, inflamed or injured. As with any other health care condition, it is important to follow up with your doctor until it is fully resolved. The eyes can feel better before things are fully resolved. This means that even if you are feeling better you still need to follow through with your doctor's prescribed treatment plan. For contact lens wearers, it is of further importance as your eye doctor will let you know when it is safe to resume contact lens wear.
How does insurance factor in?
It is also important to note that many eye-care providers are in-network with your medical insurance and same day emergency appointments may be available. As you will be seeing the doctor for a medical eye condition, the visit will be billed to your medical insurance, not your vision insurance. Vision insurance is used for annual eye exams; part of your preventative care routine. Medical insurance is used for eye infections, eye injuries and ocular disease related visits. So if you wake up with an irritated eye, call your optometrist or ophthalmologist to get you feeling better faster!