Much as the phrase suggests, eye strain happens when you look at something for too long — like a phone screen, small print, or bright lights — without taking a break to rest your eyes. It often causes a burning sensation or aching around your eyes.

Below, we’ll tell you how to “spot” eye strain, what could be causing it, and how to protect those overworked peepers.

Besides just feeling like your eyes need a break, other eye strain symptoms include:

  • eye soreness, redness, dryness, and itchiness
  • headache
  • blurry vision (or seeing double)
  • neck or shoulder pain (nerves at the back of eyes link to these areas’ nerves and muscles)

Besides eye pain and discomfort, here’s some other uncomfortable stuff you might experience when your eye muscles are tuckered out:

  • difficulty concentrating
  • feeling like you can’t keep your eyes open
  • sensitivity to light
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Whether you’re super focused on finishing that small-print novel or love staring into the sun (aka your laptop screen), there are a variety of ways eye strain can happen. The most common causes are:

  • focusing too long without a break (like when driving or reading)
  • spending too much time looking at screens
  • stress or fatigue
  • eye health concerns, such as dry eyes
  • being in a room with lighting that’s too bright or too dark
  • looking through magnifying lenses (for example, wearing the wrong glasses prescription)

Eye strain headaches

Headaches are a common symptom of strained eyes, but they usually clear up after you rest your eyes.

Eye strain headaches have their own qualities that set them apart from tension or cluster headaches. Eye strain headaches are concentrated behind the eyes. They tend to come on after you’ve been using your eyes for a long time, and not just after you’ve been looking at screens, either.

An 1800s eye expert named Peter A. Callan studied eye strain and headaches before screens were even a thing.

Digital eye strain: The square eyes our grandparents warned us about

Digital eye strain, or computer vision syndrome, is by far the most common cause of eye strain in the United States.

The prolonged use of anything with a screen can cause eye strain — so that’s phones, TVs, computers, games consoles… heck, that’s our entire life. Great.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that more than 50 percent of folks in the United States experience digital eye strain.

The above steps are probably all you’ll need to treat eye strain. It’s easy to remedy in most cases. For eye strain, prevention and treatment are pretty much one and the same.

Eye strain home remedies and relief

If prevention techniques don’t work, there are some home remedies that may provide eye strain relief:

  • Cold compresses. Even a cool, damp washcloth applied over your closed eyes a few times a day will do.
  • Castor oil. Castor-oil-based eye drops before bed may be a particularly effective home remedy for recurrent eye strain.

When to call a doctor about eye strain

Eye strain isn’t massively dangerous.

You may want to consider calling a doctor if your symptoms don’t get better after trying some home treatments and lifestyle adjustments. You should also contact an optometrist if you keep getting eye strain despite your best efforts.

It’s important to note that eye strain pain isn’t often that severe. If you are experiencing severe pain in your eyes, contact a doctor immediately. Peeps experiencing any eye strain symptoms to debilitating levels might have a much more serious underlying condition.

You can mostly avoid eye strain by taking breaks and being gentle with your little windows on the world.

  • Look away regularly. Eye experts often refer to what they call the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes, shift your focus to something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. You should also take regular breaks if you do work that involves intense focus. If you work on a computer, it’s important this break doesn’t involve a screen. Go outside, and enjoy the sunshine.
  • Position your screen properly. The screen you’re looking at should be a few feet from your eyes (or arm’s length). It should also be at eye level or slightly lower. Pro tip: use large text fonts to further reduce your chance of eye strain.
  • Find proper lighting. Make sure it’s not too bright or too dim, and that light comes from behind if you’re focusing on something. Lighting goes for screens too. Fiddle with that brightness to your heart’s content.
  • Up your multitask game. If you’re working from multiple screens or texts, position them in a way that doesn’t make you move your eyes and neck around too much.
  • Use eye drops. Eye drops are readily available at most drug stores. You blink less when you concentrate, which makes your eyes itchy. Blinking more stops this. But if you notice too late, eye drops can re-moisturize your peepers — no problemo.
  • Take note of the air. If you’re somewhere dry or polluted, it can affect your eyes. Fans, heating, and cooling units can also impact them. Adjust the heating system, get a humidifier, or try to go somewhere else if the air is giving you eye grief.
  • Wear the right eyewear. If you should wear glasses, and you’re not wearing them, put your glasses on. If you feel that you don’t need glasses and are getting eye strain, call the eye doctor. You might need glasses, after all.

How long can I look at a screen without straining my eyes?

As a rule of thumb, the American Optometric Association recommends taking a break every 20 minutes or so to rest your eyes. Try and limit overall screen time to no longer than an hour or 2 in one sitting.

According to the Vision Council, 80 percent of U.S. peeps use their devices for more than 2 hours a day, and 67 percent of people report they use more than one device at a time. The more screen time you have, the greater the chance of digital eye strain.

There are a few ways to strain your eyes. The most common causes are screens and devices. We spend longer than we should looking at screens, so digital eye strain is mad common.

But eye strain is treatable. There are plenty of home remedies and easy adjustments you can make to avoid it or reduce symptoms.

One of the most effective ways to prevent eye strain is to reduce screen time and take regular breaks. If you can’t, then try using some eye drops.

Eye strain usually isn’t serious. That being said, eye strain can be a symptom of more serious underlying conditions. If symptoms persist despite your best efforts or are incredibly severe, consider seeking medical attention.