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Why Do My Eyes Burn When I Cry?

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A close-up of a woman crying with closed eyes.

We’ve all been there–someone’s cutting onions in the room again. But what could it mean when those tears are making your eyes burn? 

There are a few reasons why your eyes burn when you cry. One possibility is that an underlying eye condition like dry eye or blepharitis is causing irritation. Environmental irritants like smoke can also cause your eyes to burn when you cry. And, sometimes, it’s just the natural composition of your tears that interact with your eyes.

Booking an eye exam with your eye doctor is the best way to confirm the cause of the burning sensation when crying and work out a treatment plan for relief if necessary. 

Types of Tears

Your tears play a crucial role in maintaining the health of your eyes and creating clear vision. You produce 3 different kinds of tears: 

  • Basal tears are constantly present in your eyes to lubricate, nourish, and protect the cornea. They act as a shield, preventing dirt and debris from entering your eyes. 
  • Reflex tears are produced when your eyes need to wash away irritants like smoke, foreign objects, or onion fumes. They’re released in larger amounts and may contain more antibodies to fight bacteria.
  • Emotional tears are triggered by joy, sadness, or fear and may contain additional hormones and proteins not found in basal or reflex tears.

Basal tears make up the tear film, which keeps your eyes healthy and comfortable. It consists of 3 layers: 

  • The oily layer is produced by the meibomian glands and helps to prevent tears from evaporating too quickly.
  • The watery layer is produced by the lacrimal gland and helps to keep your eyes moist and lubricated.
  • The mucus layer is produced by goblet cells in the conjunctiva and helps spread the tears evenly over your eye surface.

All 3 layers are essential for the tear film to work correctly. If there’s an issue with any of them, you can develop dry eye, which can cause burning and excessive watering. But your eye’s response to emotional or physical stimuli also causes changes in your tear composition that lead to burning. 

Emotional Tears

When we cry due to emotional distress, the tears produced contain a different composition than the basal tears, with additional proteins, hormones, and stress-related chemicals. 

The increased tear production during crying, combined with this unique composition, can lead to discomfort and burning. This discomfort may be caused by an increased salt content and the physiological responses to emotional stress.

Reflex Tears

Reflex tears are the body’s defence against irritants like dust, smoke, or chopping onions. They work to neutralize and wash away these irritants and contain a higher concentration of antibodies, enzymes, and salt than basal tears. The elevated salt content can contribute to a temporary burning or stinging sensation when they contact the eyes. 

The production of reflex tears is triggered by nerve endings in the cornea and conjunctiva detecting irritants, leading to an inflammatory response that, while essential for neutralization, can cause temporary discomfort. 

This burning sensation is typically short-lived and part of the body’s natural protective mechanism. Talk to your eye doctor to rule out any underlying issues if burning is persistent or severe.

Allergies & Infections

Allergies and infections can lead to an overproduction of mucus in the eyes. An excess of mucus can mix with the tear film, disrupting its balance and causing discomfort and symptoms such as blurred vision or a gritty sensation. 

Eye infections like conjunctivitis commonly cause pus, which can also contribute to a burning sensation when we cry. 

Dry Eye Syndrome

Dry eye is a common condition where your eyes either don’t make enough tears or the tears they make aren’t of the right quality. This can affect the stability of your tear film, making your eyes more likely to get irritated, red, and have that burning sensation.

If you have dry eye, crying can intensify the burning feeling because the tears produced when we cry evaporate quickly, leaving the eyes feeling even drier. Crying also temporarily reduces the existing moisture on the eyes, making dryness more intense. 

If you’re dealing with persistent discomfort from dry eyes, consult your eye doctor for guidance on managing and alleviating these symptoms.

Finding Relief from Burning Eyes When Crying

Eating a balanced diet can make a big difference in your eye comfort. Foods rich in nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, lutein, zinc, and vitamins C and E can help prevent age-related vision problems like macular degeneration and cataracts.

Staying hydrated is also key. Your body needs water to produce tears; not getting enough can lead to dryness and irritation.

Avoiding irritants is also essential. This includes things like smoke, dust, and even certain types of makeup. All these factors can contribute to irritation and discomfort.

An optometrist examines his patient's eyes using a slit lamp.

Understand the Causes

If you suffer from dry eyes, call us at Dr. Henslick Vision Center to find a solution and keep your eyes healthy and comfortable.

Remember, even if crying causes burning, it’s natural and healthy. Don’t be ashamed to let a few tears fall every now and then.

Written by Total Vision

At Total Vision, we pride ourselves on ensuring healthy eyes for the whole family and work hard to help all our patients look, feel, and see better. With many locations throughout California, we continue to set new industry standards for professionalism and quality. We empower all our partners to offer leading-edge testing, treatment, and eyewear. With the support of our entire network behind each care provider, patients all over the state can enjoy consistent quality and incredible value.
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