Red Eyes in Africans: Treatment and Prevention


By: Elizabeth Obigwe. Freelance Writer. With medical review and editorial support by the DLHA Team


Treatment of red eyes

Treatment options of red eyes. Click on image to enlarge.





  • Red eye is one of the most common reports of eye problems in African clinics
  • Traditional eye medicine is one of the common ways Africans introduce harmful substances into their eyes
  • Treatment for red eye varies depending on the severity and cause of the condition
  • See a doctor if eye redness does not improve within a day or two






There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for red eyes. This is because there are several different causes of red eyes and these causes range from relatively trivial conditions to more devastating and potentially blinding ones. Hence, treatment options equally range from supportive as in the use of cold compresses to aggressive as in the use of steroids. 

Treatment options chosen usually depend on the severity of symptoms and the cause of the red eyes and it can be adjusted over time as symptoms reduce. Your doctor will determine the most suitable option following proper diagnosis. If the red eye is a result of an underlying systemic condition, your doctor will also take this into consideration when administering treatment.

On your side, there are simple lifestyle practices you can do to protect your eyes and prevent eye redness. This article will discuss the treatment and preventive measures that can help to manage red eyes. It will also advise on the best time to see a doctor if you have red eyes.



How to Treat Red Eyes


Not all eye redness will need you to go to the hospital. So, some of the treatment options include home remedies for red eyes that are easy to carry out. However, if you have persistent red eyes, it is important to consult an eye doctor (ophthalmologist) for the right diagnosis and treatment.

Some red eye treatments and home remedies include:



Getting enough rest can help reduce eye strain and fatigue, which can contribute to eye redness.


Cold compresses

Applying a cool compress over closed eyes can help reduce inflammation and soothe pain and irritation. There are different ways of making cold compresses at home. You can do this using a wet towel, an ice pack or even a frozen food pack.


Eye drops

The type of eye drop used in managing eye redness depends on the severity of the condition. In mild cases, over-the-counter artificial tears can help lubricate the eyes and relieve dryness. 

Also, some cases might require medicated eye drops such as decongestants and antihistamines. 

Your doctor may also recommend antibiotic or antiviral eye drops or ointments for more specific cases. Ensure that you seek and follow the advice of a doctor when using eye drops.


Oral medications

Oral medications like painkillers and NSAIDs may be administered alongside other treatment options to reduce pain and inflammation. When necessary, other drugs like oral antibiotics may be administered.


Eye Irrigation

Eye irrigation helps to remove foreign bodies such as chemicals from the eyes. A sterile solution of water or saline is used to flush the eye in order to dilute and remove harmful substances.

In Africa, one of the most common ways in which people introduce harmful substances into their eyes is via traditional eye medicine. 

Traditional healers use substances like alcohol, ground cowries, donkey and cow dung, herbal preparations, human sputum, bird and lizard faeces, urine, etc. for eye treatment. This can cause eye irritation, redness and other severe conditions. It may even lead to vision loss in some cases.

When attending to patients exposed to such harmful practice, medical practitioners first irrigate the affected eye to flush out the foreign body before administering further treatment.

In a case where eye redness is caused by mild irritants, gently washing the eye with clean water may do the trick.  



Some eye conditions may require the use of topical ocular steroid therapy. However, this needs to be used with caution as red eyes may be a symptom of more serious conditions like herpes simplex keratitis or infective corneal ulcers. If that is the case, the use of steroids may mask symptoms or delay wound healing.  Or even worse, cause the condition to progress.



For more serious causes of red eyes like acute angle-closure glaucoma and orbital cellulitis, your doctor may have to conduct surgery.


Other specific treatment options

Your doctor may employ other specific treatment options including; immunosuppressive agents, antifungal or anti-acanthamoebal therapy, and mast cell stabilisers if need be.


Rest, cold compresses and painkillers are some of the home remedies for red eyes. Whereas steroids, surgery and other specific treatments should only be employed as recommended by your doctor.



How Can I Prevent Red Eyes?


You can prevent red eyes by avoiding things that irritate your eyes and by maintaining proper face and hand hygiene. If the red eye is associated with a systemic disease, treating the underlying cause can make the red eyes go away. Some helpful tips for preventing eye redness include;

  • If you use contact lenses, clean them often.
  • Always use good lighting 
  • Regulate screen time to reduce eye strain.
  • Wash your hands frequently especially if you come in contact with someone who has an eye infection.
  • Take off your eye makeup before going to bed.
  • Don’t wear contact lenses longer than recommended or while swimming.
  • Don’t go to bed with contact lenses.
  • Avoid activities that can cause eye strain.
  • Avoid irritants and allergens. Where you cannot completely avoid them, reduce contact and clean your eyes thoroughly with water.



When Should I See a Doctor?


You should see a doctor if symptoms do not improve after managing it for a day or two. Although most common causes of red eyes are mild, there are other severe causes and you may not be able to tell which you are suffering from. Most of the causes of red eyes are treatable and early detection can save your eyes from severe damage. 



Primary Care and Red Eyes in Africa


Red eye is one of the most common reports of eye problems in African clinics as well as in other developing countries. A study in Ghana showed over 40% of the outpatients at a hospital’s eye unit suffered one type of red eyes or another. 

Most cases of red eyes are reported at community clinics and health centres. Hence, it is important to equip primary healthcare workers with the knowledge they need to distinguish and treat the different causes of red eyes. If these primary healthcare workers are well trained, there will be faster and closer care for patients and less burden on secondary health centres.

Table 1 below describes the signs and symptoms that can be used to identify simple causes of red eyes that can be treated at primary care level in community health centres from causes of complicated and severe red eyes that require treatment in secondary (general) or tertiary (teaching) hospitals.

Types of red eyes with levels for care

Table 1: Signs and symptoms that differentiate types of red eyes and level of care.

Click on image to enlarge. Adapted from Du Toit and Van Zyl, 2013.




Final Words


Individuals should adopt preventive measures to reduce incidents of eye redness. For cases that cannot be prevented, early diagnosis and treatment are of vital importance. Also, more severe cases should be handled by eye specialists (ophthalmologists) to avoid causing more damage to the eye due to the wrong treatment plan. 

On the other hand, regions in Africa where the use of traditional eye medicine is common practice should be targeted for proper sensitization and eye health education.





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3. Eye, R. (2005). Red eye: the role of primary care. Community Eye Health Journal, 18(53), 69.

4. Lambert, L. (2017). Diagnosing a red eye: An allergy or an infection? South African Family Practice, 59(4), 22–26. 

5. Bradshaw, S. E., Shankar, P., & Maini, R. (2006). Topical steroid and antibiotic combination therapy in red eye conditions. The British journal of general practice: the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners, 56(525), 304.

6. Schmid, K. L., & Schmid, L. M. (2000). Ocular allergy: causes and therapeutic options. Clinical and Experimental Optometry, 83(5), 257-270.




Causes of red eyes in Africans

Priority eye diseases in Africa




Published: October 10,, 2023

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