Your eyes hold clues to your overall health, and can even help diagnose a multitude of health conditions from anaemia, allergies, skin problems, through to more serious health issues such as thyroid and kidney problems.
Most health conditions are best treated early, so if you have a problem with your eyes, then it’s worth going to your doctor to get it checked out for peace of mind. Also, don’t forget to have regular eyesight tests as these will also detect eye and general health problems.
Here we discuss some eye symptoms and the health issues they may indicate.
Dark circles under your eyes are common. They are most often due to lack of sleep but they could suggest other health issues. These include:
- Anaemia - iron deficiency can prevent your blood from carrying sufficient oxygen to your eye tissues. Anaemia can be remedied by replenishing your iron levels. This is achieved by including iron rich foods (red, lean meat, liver, egg yolks, lentils, chickpeas and seeds) or iron supplements, and foods high in vitamin C (red peppers, broccoli, kale and berries) to help its absorption. Avoid tea and coffee as these slow down iron absorptions.
- Thyroid problems - such as hypothyroidism and/or diseases of the liver. Your doctor will offer advice on the best treatment once a diagnosis has been made.
- Allergies - nasal congestion can put pressure on your blood vessels around your eyes so they are more visible. Over-the-counter decongestant medicines or inhaling steam from a bowl of hot water can help relieve a blocked nose. A food intolerance may also cause dark circles, especially to wheat, gluten or cow’s milk. You can try cutting out one of these foods for a period of one month to see if this helps.
- Eczema – a skin condition that makes your skin red and itchy. Keeping your skin moisturised using emollients (medical moisturisers) helps manage eczema and topical steroids help control flare ups.
If you’re confident that you’re getting enough sleep and your dark circles are not due to too much alcohol, then you should see your doctor. If you are feeling excessively tired despite plenty of sleep your doctor will probably test for anaemia and thyroid problems as both of these conditions show both symptoms.
Yellow whites of the eyes
If the whites of your eyes are yellowing, this is a warning sign that something is wrong in your body. It’s important to see your doctor as yellow whites of the eye can be a sign of potentially fatal liver disease that may be due to conditions such as hepatitis, liver dysfunction, bile duct obstruction or jaundice.
The most common reason for yellowing of the whites of your eyes is jaundice. It’s a condition that occurs when you have too much bilirubin (a yellow compound formed from the breakdown of red blood cells) in your blood and body's tissues. Treatment for jaundice in adults and older children depends on what's causing it. Much of the time it's due to an infection like hepatitis, alcohol-related liver disease, or blocked bile ducts. Your doctor will advise on the best treatment based on their diagnosis.
Red bloodshot eyes can be a red flag indicating a serious problem such as:
- Blepharitis - a common condition where the edges of your eyelids become red and swollen. It is usually a long-term problem with repeated episodes and it can't usually be cured. A daily eyelid-cleaning routine can help control the symptoms. More severe cases may be treated using antibiotics.
- Conjunctivitis – again common, this causes redness and inflammation of your conjunctiva (thin layer of tissue that covers the front of your eye). You may also have a sticky coating on your eyelashes. It can be a bacterial/viral or allergic condition. Bacterial/viral conjunctivitis usually clears up on its own within a couple of weeks, but if not antibiotic eye drops are used. Allergic conjunctivitis is normally treated with anti-allergy medications such as antihistamines.
- Corneal ulcers - an open sore that forms on your cornea. It’s usually caused by an infection. Medication based on the type of infection or cause is usually prescribed, and should be started as soon as possible to prevent scarring of your cornea.
Scleritis – when your sclera (protective outer layer of the eye) becomes severely inflamed and red. There are a number of different types of scleritis and it can be very painful. Early treatment with medication is necessary to prevent progression. If untreated it can lead to partial or complete vision loss.
- Uveitis - inflammation of the middle layer of the eye (uvea or uveal tract). It can cause eye pain and changes to your vision. Most cases get better with steroid medication. Sometimes uveitis can lead to further eye problems (glaucoma, cataracts). Early treatment is more likely to be successful.
- Acute glaucoma - develops suddenly as your eye drainage channel closes causing a rapid increase in pressure. You should seek immediate medical attention at your nearest A&E. Allergies - one of the most common causes of red eyes.
- Allergies - may include: pets, pollen, dust, wind, dry air, and sun. Avoidance and medications are the usual remedies. Your doctor will be able to recommend the best treatment.
You should make an appointment with your doctor if you have bloodshot eyes.
There are also other, less serious explanations including:
- Subconjunctival haemorrhage – a small bleed behind your eye covering that can look alarming but it is usually harmless with the redness usually clearing within two weeks. In most cases it just occurs for no apparent reason.
- Eye strain – often after looking at a screen for too long without regular breaks or your eyes need a new prescription. It’s worth booking an eye sight test to check.
Dry eye is the feeling of having sand or grit in your eyes. It can be caused by ageing, taking certain medications, irritants, menopause, a deficiency in vitamin A and Sjögren’s syndrome.
Vitamin A helps protect your cornea and is essential for good vision. If you have a deficiency of vitamin A it may exacerbate dry eye disease and you will need to top up your vitamin A levels. It can be obtained from animal sources such as liver, other organ meats and cod liver oil. Lower levels are found in eggs, milk, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, spinach, broccoli and fortified cereals. You also need healthy fats such as avocado to help your body to absorb vitamin A.
Sjögren’s syndrome is a condition that affects parts of your body that produce fluids like saliva and tears. You should see your doctor if your dry eyes are bothering you or aren’t clearing up. Sjögren’s syndrome has no cure, but there are self-help techniques, drops and medicine treatments that can help relieve the symptoms.
Puffy eyes are often attributed to a lack of sleep but they can also be due to more serious health problems. These include:
- Too much salt - causes fluid retention. Try to cut down on processed foods, avoid adding salt to your foods and increase your fresh vegetable intake.
- Dehydration – you need to drink more water to ensure you’re well hydrated. Avoid alcohol and caffeine as they can make you more dehydrated.
- Allergies - can cause inflammation and swelling. Try to avoid what you are allergic to or medications can help.
- Sinus problems – blocked sinuses caused by infection or allergies can result in your eyes looking puffy. Medications to treat the cause of the blocked sinuses usually help reduce your puffy eyes.
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) - a condition characterised by a gradual loss of kidney function over time. If you have less energy and trouble concentrating as well as puffy eyes, then you should see your doctor as soon as possible. Early detection can help prevent the progression of kidney disease to kidney failure.
Rings around your cornea
Rings around your cornea can be due to fat (lipid) deposits and sometimes high cholesterol levels in your body. This can be associated with an increased risk of coronary artery or cardiovascular disease, especially if you have a family history of lipid dysfunction.
You should see your doctor for a diagnosis and you may have your blood checked. If results show high cholesterol or lipids, your doctor will advise on the best way to reduce these.