Red spots on the whites of your eyes—the result of tiny broken blood vessels behind the transparent outer layer of the eyeball are subconjunctival hemorrhages. They look very dire, but unlike almost every dreadful-looking thing that can happen to the human body, they are usually painless and almost always completely harmless. Subconjunctival hemorrhage is commonly called 'red eye' (as opposed to 'pink eye,' which is the result of an infection and doesn't look like the hemorrhage at all).

Kettle brand, maker of fine potato chips, now bakes pretzel chips; they are discs, just a little smaller than a potato chip. Their "fully loaded" flavor is absolutely full of sesame seeds, poppy seeds, salt, and lots and lots of garlic. These tiny bites of garlic-and-salt heaven are also capable of becoming delicious little ninja throwing stars upon a bad bite. My molars shattered one chip and a jagged piece of pretzel shrapnel lodged sideways against my tonsil—not life-threatening, but painful as hell. What followed was an epic coughing fit. Even after I dislodged the little snack, I still coughed for a long time.

The next morning, at work, a coworker brought it to my attention, "What’s wrong with your eye?" She asked, concerned. I rushed to a mirror. There, adjacent to the colored part of my left eye, was a bloody red cloud, small, but very noticable. Hideous! ...and I’m self-conscious about my looks as it is!

Subconjunctival hemorrhages are the result of the rupture of tiny blood vessels. The conjunctiva and underlying sclera do not reabsorb the blood very quickly, so the resulting bloody patch may take two weeks or more to disappear.

Anything that raises the blood pressure in the head can cause the little blood vessels to break: coughing, sneezing, overexertion (one colleague used to lift weights, the little red spots are a common sight with the bodybuilding crowd), throwing up (another colleague told a rather awful story about a drunken party...), even straining in the bathroom may cause subconjunctival hemorrhages.

Some risk factors that might make this type of hemorrhaging more likely include: high blood pressure, diabetes, LASIK surgery, and extreme alcohol consumption. Injuries to the face can obviously cause these hemorrhages as well, so can touching the eyes or scratching at itchy eyes. I initially thought mine might have resulted from by my allergies causing me to rub my eyes.

Some rare causes may include extreme G-forces (not a common problem outside the world of pilots and astronauts, I suspect) or blood dyscrasia. Individuals using blood thinners are likewise very much at an increased risk for this condition. This includes dietary and herbal blood thinners such as ginger, ginseng, garlic, St. John's wort, and aspirin. Capsaicin, the active ingredient in most hot peppers, also thins the blood.

The books say that a subconjunctival hemorrhage should go away on its own in about two weeks. They say it will not hurt, except for maybe a tiny bit of irritation. A friend who is an optometrist told me that warm compresses can speed the healing (although cold compresses are more appropriate for the first 48 hours or so). Amazingly, everyone was spot-on this time!

My ugly red spot made me very self-conscious for about three days. Slowly, it left my thoughts and I only considered it when I put a warm washcloth over my eye for ten minutes or so. Now and then, it would itch a bit, but, as an allergy sufferer, I'm no stranger to itchy eyes.

In about a week, the spot was fading, its garish red turning to a sort of light orange color. By about day ten, it was nearly gone. Per the suggestions in books and websites, I used some eyedrops on the rare occasions when it bothered me.

Despite their innocuousness, subconjunctival hemorrhages may sometimes indicate bad things, especially in babies (although newborns sometimes have them from the birth process). A baby with this condition may be deficient in vitamin C, thus experiencing scurvy. It may also be a sign of traumatic asphyxia syndrome or physical abuse.

Please Note: If a condition which appears to be a mere subconjunctival hemorrhage hurts, continues to spread, or (especially) has a marked effect on vision ... get thyself to a doctor. Also, anyone with a blood-clotting disorder should take these little spots very seriously. Likewise, ones which recur frequently should be cause for a talk with the medical professional.

So, the little spot has faded into a memory. I've even gone back to eating those delicious pretzel chips—but very carefully.

Special thanks to Dr. A. Rasmussen for her input on this article
Mayo Clinic online:
Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, 19th edition (FA Davis, Philadelphia, 1997).

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