Painful blinking can arise from a variety of causes covered in this article. If you are experiencing discomfort or pain while blinking, please inform your doctor.
The average person blinks about 15 to 20 times a minute. That is so frequently that our eyes are closed for about 10% of our waking time. Blinking is essential to the health of our eyes. Blinking cleanses and moistens our eyes.
With every blink, tear film from our tear glands is swept across the surface of our eyes, flushing away small dust particles, lubricating the exposed surface of our eyes, and bathing our eyes in essential nutrients.
But what does it mean when it hurts when you blink your eyes?
It is common for a tiny speck of dirt or debris to get into our eyes and cause pain when blinking, but pain when blinking can also be a sign of an injury or a medical condition.
Causes of painful blinking
Conjunctivitis: This condition is sometimes called pink eye and it occurs when the conjunctiva, the clear lining on the eyeball’s surface, becomes red, inflamed, and infected. Your eyes may feel sore and gritty, and blinking may be painful.
Blepharitis: The term blepharitis means inflammation of the eyelid and it usually affects both eyes. It is caused by bacteria, or a skin condition known as seborrheic dermatitis, or when the tear glands are blocked.
Sinusitis: The sinuses are small cavities around the eyes and nose and when those sinus cavities become inflamed it can cause pain when blinking along with facial tenderness and other flu-like symptoms. Sinus infections occur when fluid builds up in the sinus cavities and this becomes a breeding ground for microorganisms either viral or bacterial. Antibiotics are never helpful if the sinusitis is caused by a viral infection.
Cluster headaches: Cluster headaches are a series of relatively short but very painful headaches that usually result in pain behind one eye and on one side of the head. Cluster headaches can also cause swollen and painful eyelids and red eyes.
Dry eye disease: Dry eye disease is caused by inadequate tear production. Blinking over a dry eyeball can be irritating and painful and can scratch your cornea.
Debris: When a foreign object enters the eye, it can result in pain and irritation of the cornea and eyelid. Eye irritation also can be caused by an eyelash that has fallen into your eye.
Sty: A sty is an eye infection that typically begins in the oil glands on the eyelids. This condition causes the lid to become red or swollen and could result in painful blinking.
More serious causes of eye pain when blinking:
Optic neuritis: This is inflammation of the optic nerve, which causes pain when moving the eyes and eyelids. The pain is most noticeable when moving your eyes to look up.
Glaucoma: Glaucoma is a group of diseases that damage the optic nerve. In the most common type of glaucoma, open-angle glaucoma, there is rarely any pain or other noticeable symptoms. However, in closed-angle glaucoma there is a marked spike in eye pressure which causes pain that is severe and that is usually accompanied by a red eye and feeling sick to your stomach. Closed-angle glaucoma usually only occurs in one eye. Closed-angle glaucoma is a medical emergency.
Corneal ulcers: Corneal ulcers may develop after an infection or from a scratch on the eye’s surface and can be very painful when blinking. If left untreated, severe dry eye can cause corneal ulcers.
Eye injuries: Any kind of injury to the face or eyes should be treated urgently.
When to seek medical attention
If your eyes hurt when blinking for more than 24 hours, it could be an indication of a more severe problem, and it is always best to find and treat medical conditions in the early stages.
Contact your eye care professional if you have pain when blinking your eyes that lasts longer than 24 hours, especially if you are experiencing other symptoms, such as:
- Pain when moving your eyes
- Swelling of the eyelids or lash line
- Light sensitivity
- Tenderness around your sinuses
If you experience pain when blinking and have any of the following symptoms, seek emergency medical attention:
- Sudden vision loss
- Nausea and vomiting
- Severe abdominal pain
- Seeing halos around lights
- Severe pain in the eye
Gregory Scimeca, M.D.
Ophthalmologist and Medical Director
The Eye Professionals