Headache And Red Eyes: Possible Causes

Headaches are very prevalent throughout the United States, with 1 in every 6 people reportedly suffering from severe headaches. The frequency of headaches is such that they can be caused by all manner of things. Sometimes, headaches are brought on by existing medical conditions or as a symptom of a wider problem. Other times, external factors can cause pain in your head. 

Moreover, it is common to experience headaches with a variety of other symptoms. One particular symptom that worries many patients is headaches with red eyes. If you suffer from both of these issues, is it something to be concerned about? In most cases, no, it is not. However, it all depends on what is causing your headache and red eyes. 

Headache and red eyes – what could it be?

Realistically, we can narrow the causes down to three possible options: 

  • Allergies
  • A lack of sleep
  • Meningitis

Allergies

Red eyes are a very common symptom of seasonal allergies. The technical term for this is allergic conjunctivitis, which refers to the inflammation of the conjunctiva lining the eyelids. When you come into contact with allergens, your body releases something called histamine. In turn, this causes the conjunctiva lining to swell up and become inflamed, creating the red appearance of your eyes. 

This is largely seen in people suffering from hayfever or allergies relating to pollen and other airborne allergens. But, if this causes red eyes, where do the headaches come into play? 

You can experience two types of headaches if you suffer from allergies: 

  • Sinus headaches – these are caused by swollen and blocked sinuses, which are key symptoms of allergies. Your sinuses begin to get inflamed and can make your whole head feel heavy and blocked. In turn, this causes a dull pain to develop in your head, particularly behind your eyes. 
  • Migraine headaches – migraines are more severe headaches that can cause more pain than usual. If you remember we mentioned that histamine is released when your body is exposed to allergens. Well, studies have shown that histamine is an efficient inducer of migraine attacks. In essence, releasing this substance can increase the likelihood of migraine or severe headaches. 

How can you treat headaches and red eyes caused by allergies? Antihistamines are a good start, preventing your body from triggering an allergic reaction. This can prevent both sinus and migraine headaches. An over-the-counter nasal spray – such as oxymetazoline or phenylephrine – has been proven to offer relief from rhinitis and sinusitis. This can relieve congestion, preventing a sinus headache from forming. 

Similarly, taking some pain medication can also help your headache disappear if it has already come about. 

A lack of sleep

If you don’t get enough sleep, you can very easily suffer from chronic headaches. There was a study in 2011 that looked at participants going through the sleep cycle. Those that didn’t get enough REM sleep were more prone to headaches the next morning. During the study, it was discovered that people with sleep deprivation create more proteins in the body that can lead to chronic pain and headaches. 

Additionally, a lack of sleep has also been shown to affect your eyes. Specifically, you don’t get as much oxygen or lubrication in your eyes because you aren’t asleep for long enough. Consequently, this leads to the blood vessels dilating and looking bloodshot or red. Therefore, it is entirely possible to wake up with a headache and red eyes because you’re not getting enough sleep. 

The treatment for this is simple; try to sleep for longer every night. Avoid being on your phone or watching TV directly before going to bed. In fact, a recent study from 2020 showed that using your phone for 30 minutes after turning your lights off can result in poor sleep quality. Try reading a book if you struggle to sleep at night, and ensure you have better sleeping conditions to get more hours and avoid headaches with red eyes. 

Meningitis

Meningitis is a condition that causes the lining around your brain and spinal cord to become inflamed. One of the common symptoms of meningitis is a severe headache, alongside rashes and a stiff neck. 

What’s more, there was one paper that uncovered a link between a baby having red eyes and contracting meningitis. It was seen as one of the initial symptoms that indicated this problem, meaning there is a possible link between meningitis and red eyes – particularly when accompanied by a headache. 

Meningitis can be a very serious condition and treatments for it will vary depending on if it is viral or bacterial. Bacterial meningitis can be treated with antibiotics, while the viral variation will have to go away on its own. 

When should you see a doctor?

If your headaches are caused by a lack of sleep or allergies, you can try to treat them yourself. Getting more sleep and treating your allergies should stop both the headaches and red eyes from manifesting. 

Nevertheless, you should see a doctor if you try to treat the issues but still see a problem. Likewise, if you suspect that meningitis is the cause, you must seek treatment right away by getting a diagnosis from a doctor. 

Get help from an online doctor

Thankfully, DrHouse makes your life a whole lot easier when you need medical assistance. We have board-certified clinicians that are ready to be contacted at a moment’s notice. All you have to do is download our app, set up your account, and schedule a virtual online doctors consultation today. 

Key Takeaways

Headaches and red eyes can be caused by a few different things. If the issue stems from allergies or a lack of sleep, it isn’t something to be worried about. However, you should be concerned if you are also exhibiting the signs of meningitis as this needs to be treated right away. 

All of the causes of headaches and red eyes can be treated, so you should be able to enjoy a pain-free life very soon. 

Sources:

  • Yeung WL, Yam KL, Chan WM, Hui J. Red eyes as the initial presentation of systemic meningococcal infection. J Paediatr Child Health. 2003 Jul;39(5):390-1. doi: 10.1046/j.1440-1754.2003.00161.x
  • Rafique N, Al-Asoom LI, Alsunni AA, Saudagar FN, Almulhim L, Alkaltham G. Effects of Mobile Use on Subjective Sleep Quality. Nat Sci Sleep. 2020 Jun 23;12:357-364. doi: 10.2147/NSS.S253375.
  • P. Durham F. Garrrett J. Hawkins J. Hayden J. Campos (2011). REM sleep deprivation promotes sustained levels of proteins implicated in peripheral and central sensitization of trigeminal nerves: role in pain chronification. Journal of Pain.Regulation of Gene Expressions| Volume12, Issue 4, Supplement  , P31, April 01, 2011. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2011.02.127 
  • Mark S. Dykewicz, 41 – Rhinitis and sinusitus, Editor(s): Robert R. Rich, Thomas A. Fleisher, William T. Shearer, Harry W. Schroeder, Anthony J. Frew, Cornelia M. Weyand, Clinical Immunology (Third Edition), Mosby, 2008, Pages 627-639, ISBN 9780323044042, Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-323-04404-2.10041-7
  • Worm, J., Falkenberg, K. & Olesen, J. Histamine and migraine revisited: mechanisms and possible drug targets. J Headache Pain 20, 30 (2019). Doi: https://doi.org/10.1186/s10194-019-0984-1 
  • Burch, R., Rizzoli, P. and Loder, E. (2018), The Prevalence and Impact of Migraine and Severe Headache in the United States: Figures and Trends From Government Health Studies. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 58: 496-505. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/head.13281

DrHouse articles are written by MDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. The contents of the DrHouse site are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing high fever (>103F/39.4C), shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, abnormal bruising, abnormal bleeding, extreme fatigue, dizziness, new weakness or paralysis, difficulty with speech, confusion, extreme pain in any body part, or inability to remain hydrated or keep down fluids or feel you may have any other life-threatening condition, please go to the emergency department or call 911 immediately.

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