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Even if it brings you temporary relief, rubbing itchy eyes can do more harm than good. Try these methods instead.
Maybe you’ve got an eyelash in your eye. Or perhaps your eyes are itchy because of seasonal allergies. Or you’re tired at the end of a long day. Before you even realize it’s happening, you’re rubbing your eyes to get some relief.
The average person touches their face 23 times an hour. But just because it’s a common habit doesn’t mean it’s a safe one.
Not only are your eyes a wide-open portal for germs to enter your body, but the hands you use to rub your eyes are also the ones that turn doorknobs, press elevator buttons, and touch all kinds of unsanitary surfaces. In fact, nearly 80% of illness-causing germs are spread by your hands, according to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Viruses and bacteria are everywhere, so we can easily contaminate our eyes with our hands,” says Anne Bui, O.D. She’s an optometrist who practices at America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Hesperia, California. If you touch an innocent-looking surface and then your eyes, you can wind up with an infection, such as pink eye, or something more serious, such as a corneal ulcer.
“It’s like scratching a bug bite,” says Dr. Bui. “It can do more damage long term.”
So how can you break your eye-rubbing habit? Try adopting these behavioral tricks:
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Hands-free tip No. 1: Make sure your frames fit
“Ill-fitting frames lead to constant adjustments,” Dr. Bui explains. “If a frame keeps falling off your face, you’ll be touching the frames and your face a lot more.”
When you get fitted for eyeglasses, your optician takes measurements to figure out where the optical center of the lens should go (the part you look through to see most clearly) and the distance between your pupil and the lens.
Poor-fitting frames can mess with these measurements, causing you to fiddle with your frames to try to see better.
Your optician can adjust the nosepiece and arms of your frames to alleviate any discomfort and make sure your eyeglasses fit properly.
“We tell our patients to come back every three months to get their frames adjusted by our opticians,” Dr. Bui says. In fact, adjustments are always free at America’s Best!
Related reading: Ask an Optician: I'm told the frames I love won't work for me. Huh?
Hands-free tip No. 2: Wear the right prescription
The wrong prescription can leave you with blurred vision and strained eyes. Subconsciously, you might try to “clear things up” by messing with your frames or touching your eyes.
Contact lens wearers have another thing to consider: An incorrect prescription for contacts can cause blurred vision. A poor-fitting lens can cause significant rotation of the lens and discomfort.
“Some patients feel the need to actually touch the contact to turn the lens, which is a big no-no,” Dr. Bui says. “Rewetting drops such as Blink® or Refresh® should help. Patients can wash their hands, remove the lens, clean, and reinsert.”
It’s important to get your eyes examined yearly to check for any changes in your vision and get your prescription updated if needed.
“Just like any other aspect of your health, your eye health can change a lot within a year,” Dr. Bui says.
Hands-free tip No. 3: Don’t push your contact lens wearing to the limit
There’s a reason your optometrist told you to remove your contact lenses after eight to 10 hours. Any longer and your eyes will start to feel dry and uncomfortable, leading to — you guessed it — eye rubbing. Even if you wear daily disposable contacts, you don’t necessarily have a free pass to wear them literally all day.
“Bottom line is, keep the contacts clean, don’t sleep in them, don’t swim in them, and store them in clean solution every night,” Dr. Bui says. “Replace and discard lenses as per your doctor’s instructions.”
This could be daily, biweekly, or monthly, depending on the type and brand of contact lenses. Extended-wear contact lenses can be worn anywhere from one week to one month. Daily-wear contacts are meant to be disposed of every day. (For more, read Dailies vs. Monthlies: Which Contact Lens Is Best for You?)
Remember to touch contact lenses only with clean hands, Dr. Bui says. Place your contacts in the proper solution when you aren’t wearing them and close their storage case tightly to keep out dust. Dirty contact lenses can contribute to eye irritation and infection.
Hands-free tip No. 4: Find relief in ways that don’t involve rubbing your eyes
As tempting as it is to rub your eyes, there are healthier ways to ease discomfort from allergy symptoms or eyestrain. Try a cool, damp compress when you start to feel signs of itching.
Lubricating eyedrops are another good option, Dr. Bui says. There are lots of varieties available over the counter, so ask your optometrist to recommend one that’s right for you. And consider buying more than one bottle so that you can stash one in your bag or pocket or at work.
Your optometrist might also recommend prescription eyedrops. Or they may recommend using eyedrops along with over-the-counter oral antihistamines, she adds.
Be wary of “anti-redness” eyedrops, Dr. Bui says, unless they’re specifically recommended by an optometrist. These products aren’t good for the eyes because of rebound redness, she explains. That’s when prolonged use of the anti-redness drops actually makes the symptom worse.
This is another reason to work closely with your eye doctor on any troubling visual symptoms you experience.
“Eyes can be red due to multiple factors,” she says. “An eye exam can confirm the actual problem. We should treat the disease or condition and not just the symptoms.”
Hands-free tip No. 5: Keep your eyelids clean
If your skin care regimen doesn’t involve cleaning your eyelids, you should rethink it. Your eyelids can harbor organisms that cause dry eye and irritation, tempting you to rub your eyes throughout the day.
“Cleaning your lashes and lids daily removes dead skin cells, oils, and makeup,” Dr. Bui says. “And it helps to promote healthy tears and moisture to keep your eyes comfortable all day.”
She recommends baby shampoo because it’s affordable and easily accessible. But there are other products you can use to safely clean your eyelids and prevent eye irritation.
“I love Zocular® and Hypochlor®. You can use them twice a day,” Dr. Bui says. Try a few products to see which one is right for you.
Hands-free tip No. 6: Distract yourself
There’s one thing busy hands can’t do — touch your eyes. Get in the habit of carrying a stress ball or fidget spinner to keep your hands occupied, Dr. Bui suggests.
She also finds that some people benefit from subtle reminders about their face-touching ways. For example, wear a scented hand lotion, something fairly strong that you’ll notice.
“Some patients paint their nails so that the visual and smell of nail polish helps them realize they’re touching their face,” Dr. Bui says.
Hands-free tip No. 7: Carry tissues
For those moments when you really must touch your face — to dab at watery eyes, for example — use a tissue to act as a barrier between your hands and eyes. Keep travel packs in your bag and/or car so that you’ll have them with you whenever eye irritation strikes.
Breaking habits isn’t easy, Dr. Bui acknowledges, but this is one that’s important to stop.
“Practice, practice, practice is the only way to turn a healthy behavioral change into habit,” she says. “Just don’t touch your eyes. It’s not worth it.”