How to Handle a Scratch on Your Eye

A scratch on the surface of your eye is usually a minor concern — but that doesn’t mean you should ignore it. Find out below what steps you should take.

A man rubbing his eyes under his glasses

It’s all too common: Something pokes you in the eye, whether it’s a tree branch or simply your own fingernail, and you notice pain and a gritty feeling. Chances are you’ve experienced a corneal abrasion. That’s the technical term for a scratch or scrape on the surface of your cornea, the clear dome-shaped window at the front of your eye, according to Nick Phebus, O.D., an optometrist with National Vision who’s based in Carmel, Indiana.

“One of the most common causes is a contact lens,” says Dr. Phebus. “Since the cornea has a ton of nerve endings, even a small scratch can cause light sensitivity and sharp pain.”

Most corneal scratches heal on their own in a few days, says Dr. Phebus. But in some cases, the scratch can become infected, which can lead to complications, even scarring of your cornea. And that can threaten your sight. Make sure any scratch you suffer heals quickly with these tips:

Step #1: Rinse Out Your Eye

Even the smallest scratches deserve some immediate first-aid care. Use a saline solution or eyewash to make sure the object that caused the scratch is gone.

To be thorough, find a small drinking glass, or — if you have one — an eyecup. An eyecup is a small oval-shaped cup with a rim that’s curved like the shape of your eye. (You can find them in many pharmacies, and they’re a good addition to your home first-aid kit.) Fill it halfway with the eyewash or saline solution and place it tightly over your eye to prevent leaks. Then tilt your head back and open your eye so that the liquid can wash over the eye’s surface.

If you don’t have access to a saline solution, try blinking several times or pulling your upper eyelid over your lower eyelid, which can help get rid of small foreign particles in your eye.

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Step #2: Call Your Eye Doctor

Most minor eye emergencies such as a scratch are better off treated by an experienced optometrist rather than your family doctor or at an urgent care center, says Dr. Phebus. That’s because your optometrist has all the right equipment to thoroughly examine your eye. In many cases, your family doctor would refer you back to an eye doctor.

Plus, your local optometrist can usually fit you in quickly. And even if the scratch seems to be on the mend, Dr. Phebus says, it’s a smart idea to see your eye doctor as soon as possible — just to be sure your cornea is okay.

They will typically numb your eye and put a special orange dye called fluorescein on your eye’s surface to examine it. If your optometrist discovers an eye scratch, they will most likely give you antibiotic drops such as Polytrim (a polymyxin B and trimethoprim ophthalmic combination) to lubricate your eye (making you more comfortable) and help prevent infection, says Dr. Phebus. If you’re in a lot of pain, they can also prescribe an oral anti-inflammatory.

Before using an over-the-counter eyedrop, get the green light from your optometrist. Some over-the-counter drops (especially those labeled “redness relief”) can irritate scratched eyes and may delay healing.

Step #3: Take It Easy While Your Eye Heals

For the next several days, give your eyes a break to allow for full healing.

Wear glasses, not contacts. If you’re a contact lens wearer, now’s the time to give them a rest. They may slow the healing process and even introduce bacteria that could cause an infection. While your eye is healing, you may find that it’s very light-sensitive, so wear your sunglasses everywhere, even indoors if needed, says Dr. Phebus.

Keep your hands down. It’s obvious advice but hard to follow! Don’t rub your scratched eye. That can make the injury worse.

Manage pain. Cold compresses and over-the-counter pain relievers can help dull any lingering aches and relieve inflammation. Cold compresses can be applied for up to 20 minutes at a time.

Your doctor may have you come back for a check in a day or two to make sure your eye isn’t infected and is, in fact, healing properly, says Dr. Phebus. You could develop a condition called corneal erosion, which happens when the layer of cells on the surface of your cornea loosens. In that case, your eye doctor may recommend other treatments such as surgery or lasers to remove corneal tissue.

Step #4: Stop Scratches Before They Happen

You can reduce your chances of developing a painful eye scratch with a few safety precautions:

  • Wear eye protection such as safety goggles when you do yardwork, use power tools, or play sports.
  • Keep your fingernails short, especially if you wear contact lenses.
  • Make sure your contact lenses fit.
  • Poorly fitting lenses are more likely to scratch your eyes. Since lenses can warp over time, and your cornea can change shape, make sure to see your optometrist regularly.
  • Apply eye makeup carefully. A slip with a mascara wand or an eyeliner pencil can cause an unexpected injury.
  • Deal with dry eye. If you have dry eye, you may be more susceptible to corneal abrasions. Your doctor can discuss treatments that will help, such as prescription eyedrops or ointments.