Why do you have puffy eyes?
Waking up with puffy, swollen eyes is a major bummer—especially if you need to arrive at work looking bright and alert, or you’re tired of masking the puffiness with makeup. Even worse is when the puff is accompanied by dark circles, redness, underye bags, and/or irritation. It’s not a pretty look, and it can do a number on your self-esteem.
Why does it happen? Many things can contribute to eye puffiness, but the underlying cause has to do with fluid accumulation. For unknown reasons, fluid has collected around your eyes and the surrounding skin tissue. This tissue is among the thinnest in your body, so any swelling there is easy to see and hard to hide.
Some of the causes of this fluid retention are relatively harmless and unrelated to a more serious issue, such as not getting enough sleep or consuming foods with too much sodium. Other times, the puffiness is a sign something that needs to be addressed by a doctor, like an infection, says Randy McLaughlin, OD, a professor of optometry at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.
To help you uncover what’s behind your puffy eyes, we spoke with a team of doctors, including a dermatologist, ophthalmologist, allergist, and optometrist. Read on for the reasons why fluid accumulation happens and how to combat it—and wake up looking fresh, gorgeous, and like yourself again.
You have allergies
The skin around your eyes is very thin, making them extremely sensitive. When skin here comes into contact with allergens floating in the air such as pollen, animal dander, or dust mites, swelling is the result. Adding to the puffiness are allergens that reach the eyes through your nose.
“Sometimes the sinus cavities behind the eyes become inflamed due to inhalation of the allergens through the nasal passages,” says Lisa Ellman-Grunther, MD, an allergist at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai in New York City, in an email to Health. If allergies are the reason for your puffy eyes, they’ll likely also be itchy and watery—another fun effect of allergens. You might also notice dryness and flakiness on the skin, particularly your eyelids, says Dr. Ellman-Grunther.
To reduce allergy-induced puffiness, try over-the-counter eye drops or a saline eye rinse, which wash the allergens out of your peepers. For irritated skin, lubricated ointments not only act as a barrier between the skin and allergens, but it also can soothe and ease redness. A nasal spray might help relieve sinus pressure and in turn de-puff your eyes.
Using these products occasionally is fine, but relying on them for days on end isn’t a good idea. “Using [over-the-counter eye drops and nasal sprays] for too long can make the problem worse and cause dependence,” warns Dr. Ellman-Gunther. “You should always confirm with a doctor what’s safe to use and for how long before using over the counter products for more than a few days.” Talk to your doctor about prescription meds as well.
While it’s hard to totally avoid allergens, reduce your exposure and prevent eye puffiness by staying indoors as much as possible—especially in fall and spring, when trees and plants release more pollen and symptoms can get worse. Keep windows shut, change into another outfit when you come in from outdoors, and consider getting an air filter to cut down on pet dander in your home.
You’re suffering from pink eye
If you have pink eye, you would think you’d know it—this super contagious eye condition usually causes the mucus membranes that line your eyes to turn pinkish-red and swell up, releasing discharge as well.
But sometimes it’s hard to tell, especially if your pink eye (aka conjunctivitis) is caused by a virus rather than a bacterial infection. Viral pink eye is often accompanied by a watery, clear discharge and can be relatively mild. Bacterial pink eye, on the other hand, is characterized by a yellowish-green discharge, and there might be a lot of it.
If your pink eye is triggered by a viral infection, you might also have cold symptoms, explains Kira Manusis, MD, an ophthalmologist at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, in an email to Health. “In such cases it can be associated with an upper respiratory infection,” she says. “It often starts in one eye and spreads to the other.”
There’s a third form of pink eye that can cause eye puffiness too: allergy-related pink eye, which tends to affect both eyes at the same time and typically causes watery discharge and itching in the corners of your eyes. If you also experience a runny nose or sneezing when you have pink eye, it’s probably allergy-related, says Dr. Manusis.
Pink eye doesn’t come with many warning signs, explains Dr. McLaughlin, but once you notice symptoms, it’s important to take special care. If it appears to be bacterial, check in with an MD about getting a prescription for antibacterial eye drops to speed healing.
Viral pink eye tends to clear up on its own within five to 10 days, while allergy-related pink eye can be treated through avoidance of known allergens and antihistamine drops. If you notice changes in your vision or the color and puffiness don’t go away, see your doctor, advises Dr. McLaughlin.
You keep in your contact lenses too long
Leave your contacts in for too long, and it could leave you with puffy eyes. A contact len is “a barrier to the eye,” explains Dr. McLaughlin. This barrier prevents oxygen from reaching the eyes, which can make your corneas swell. If you sleep in your lenses, you’re putting more stress on your corneas and make the swelling even more pronounced.
So although it can be inconvenient, the best advice is to make sure you take them out before hitting the sack. Instead of waiting until the last sleepy minute, one trick is to remove your contact lenses in the late afternoon or evening—so you don’t forget or get lazy, doze off in them, and wake up looking like a blowfish.
You’ve been crying
Why do eyes get puffy when you cry? The tears that stream down your cheeks after an emotional sob session are thought to contain more water than other tears, like the kind that flow when your eyes are trying to wash out dust or debris. When the watery tears hit ocular tissues that have a high salt content, the tissues swell.
“It is thought that the tears secreted while crying have a slightly different composition in addition to a different hormonal response,” explains Dr. Manusis. It doesn’t help that after a crying jag, you might rub your eyes to dry them or mask the tears, and that puffs your eyes up as well.
To de-puff after watching a tearjerker flick or getting misty-eyed at a wedding, apply a cold compress to your eyes for a few minutes. A splash of cool water and a dab of concealer can also help you hide that you were crying (but concealer can’t do much for actually making your eyes less puffy, unfortunately).
You consume too much sodium
The sodium and puffy-eye connection is simple: sodium causes your body to hold onto fluid, and that includes in the tissues surrounding your eyes as well. Sodium is the main mineral in salt, so salty foods such as chips and cold cuts are major swollen-eye culprits. But sodium is also hidden in tons of packaged products, including bread, soup, and frozen meals.
People who consume foods containing MSG can also find themselves dealing with fluid retention. MSG is a flavor enhancer added to some products, and though it doesn’t have as much sodium as table salt, sodium is a main ingredient of MSG that can “increase water retention and puffiness around the eyes,” explains Debra Jaliman, MD, a New York City–based dermatologist, in an email to Health.
To get rid of the puff, cut back your sodium intake. How much salt is too much? It varies from person to person, says Dr. McLaughlin, but the Centers for Disease Control suggest that most adults stick to less than 2,300 mg of sodium daily.
You drink too much alcohol
Excessive alcohol intake causes all kinds of body issues, including bloating all over. So it makes sense that drinking too much contributes to puffy eyes as well. “Alcohol can lower an anti-diuretic hormone in your body, which causes puffiness,” says Dr. McLaughlin.
And don’t forget this indirect way pounding one too many back can cause swollen eyes. Although alcohol is a depressant, it actually makes it harder to sleep for most of us, making us toss and turn or wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to go back to dreamland. A poor night’s sleep can cause fluid retention, leading to inflated eyes.
To avoid fluid retention and keep alcohol from setting up that anti-diuretic effect, try sticking to no more than one drink per night if you’re female, and two if you’re male. These are the CDC guidelines for moderate drinking, but if you still notice eye bloat, consider giving up the booze for good and limiting it to special occasions only.
Artificial sweeteners are part of your diet
Like regular sugar, artificial sweeteners such as saccharin and aspartame promote inflammation all over the body, including in the eye area. Inflammation happens when your immune system floods your body with white blood cells, a defense mechanism for fighting off foreign organisms such as bacteria or a virus. When your immune system does this often, it can have a spillover effect that leads to “joint pain, fatigue, and damage to the blood vessels,” Scott Zashin, MD, clinical professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, told Health in a previous interview.
Artificial sweeteners have also been linked to body bloating, which will have an effect on your eyes as well. Go easy on the diet sodas and other products containing fake sugar substitutes, or give them up completely. You can also try easing the eye puff caused by this fake sugars by consuming more inflammation-fighting foods like berries, tomatoes, and ginger.
You’re sensitive to fragrance
Allergens like pollen and pet dander aren’t the only airborne particles that can cause puffy eyes. Perfumes and scented products can also contribute to puffiness—because a person has an allergy to the fragrance, or they simply have sensitive eyes.
“When choosing products, try to use products that are fragrance-free,” says Dr. Jaliman. When you spritz on perfume in particular, aim it away from your face to keep scented particles as far from your eyes as possible.
Fragrance sensitivity is nothing new: a March 2017 study published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports found that exposure to fragrances can lead to a host of negative reactions, like migraines and difficulty breathing. And 14% of people in the study reported having eye issues when they were within smelling distance of certain scents.
You’re getting older
You eat well, avoid alcohol, and always score a healthy 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Yet your undereye area sometimes resembles a tiny pillow. What’s going on? Some of us are simply genetically prone to eye puffiness, says Dr. McLaughlin. And this inherited predisposition tends to not show up until later in life, well into your 30s or 40s (though it can strike at younger ages as well).
Here’s what happens: As you age, fat deposits that typically support the eyes begin to sag, causing a puffing effect, says Dr. McLaughlin. The tissue and muscles surrounding the eyes weaken as well, adding to the swollen appearance. Puffiness caused by genetics and age isn’t usually a medical concern. “It’s reasonable to say you’re predisposed to having puffy eyes. I’ve seen people whose skin hasn’t aged a bit, but it can be the other way too,” he adds.
That said, there are still things you can do to reduce their appearance and slow the process down, such as not smoking—as the habit dries out skin and reduces collagen, both of which promote saggy bags. Eye creams can keep eye skin firmer for longer if used as a preventative treatment. Blepharoplasty, or eyelid surgery, can remove undereye bags.
You don’t get enough sleep
Most people associate lack of sleep with dark underye circles. But Dr. Jaliman says not scoring enough snooze time can result in puffiness too. Dr. McLaughlin agrees: “Lack of sleep doesn’t cause the bags and puffiness but makes them puffier and more noticeable.” Not everyone who skimps on sleep will get swollen eyes, but it’s a definite consequence for most of us, he says.
The solution here is a no-brainer: turn in earlier, so you can get 7-9 hours of sleep each night, and create a bedroom environment that’s conducive to catching zzz’s, says Dr. Jaliman. That means not eating or watching too much TV in bed, so your mind associates the bedroom with sleeping only. And no gadget-reading in bed either. The blue light from many digital devices is a sneaky culprit that keeps your brain wired.
If you don’t get enough sleep once in a while, try to resist the urge to try to rub your eyes awake in the a.m. This reflexive habit many of us have after a night of tossing and turning pulls the sensitive skin around the eyes and contributes to swelling.
Your period is on the way
You know how bloated you feel during your PMS week before your period, and even through those first few heavy-flow days? That same waterlogged effect can leave your eyes swollen as well.
It has to do with the hormone fluctuations happening at this time; changes in estrogen and progesterone cause fluid retention all through your body—including your peepers. While that time of the month isn’t a puffy-eye trigger for all women, it can contribute to swelling in some, says Dr. McLaughlin.
The good news: when your period nears its end, the swelling should subside, whether it’s around your eyes or elsewhere. Until it does, you can reduce the eye puffiness by holding a cold compress to the eyes for a few minutes and drinking lots of water (which helps flush out excess fluid your system is holding on to). Dr. Jalimon also suggests looking into eye creams and serums with caffeine, which can reduce the appearance of swelling.