Don’t Get Burned by One of Summer’s Biggest Vision Dangers

Bring on the fireworks! We’ve got your eye safety covered.

friends playing with fireworks

It was the Fourth of July when 10-year-old Tommy was shot in the left eye by a bottle rocket that strayed off course during a casual home celebration. His parents rushed him to emergency care, where he was given antibiotic eye drops and told to see an eye doctor the next day.  

Optometrist Robert Simon, O.D., found a scratch in the clear outer layer of Tommy’s eye—a corneal abrasion. That explained the redness, swollen eyelids, and intense pain. 

“Everyone knows what it’s like to get a piece of dust or dirt in your eye and how much that hurts,” says Dr. Simon, who now works at the America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses store in Hermitage, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville. “You can imagine what it would be like if part of the tissue was knocked off.”

Most corneal abrasions heal within 24 to 72 hours. But that wasn’t the most concerning part. Given the nature of Tommy’s eye trauma, he could have sustained a vision-threatening injury like traumatic iritis (inflammation of the colored ring around the eye’s pupil). 

Dr. Simon was also worried about possible damage to Tommy’s retina, the layer of nerve cells in the back of the eye that send signals to the brain so you can see.  

Still, Tommy’s pain was too great for him to sit through a more thorough exam. Dr. Simon gave him a bandage contact lens to protect the cornea and administered a dilating drop for the pain and a steroid drop to guard against iritis. 

He told Tommy to come back the next day, hoping the pain would diminish enough to check for further damage.  

Fireworks: Risky Business for Your Eyes

Tommy is just one of the thousands of Americans treated for fireworks injuries every year. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s latest fireworks report, eight people were killed and an estimated 12,900 people were injured by fireworks in 2017, and 14% of those injuries were to the eyes.

“With fireworks, you can have three kinds of eye injury,” Dr. Simon says. “You can have a chemical injury, a thermal burn, or a mechanical trauma where a foreign body gets shot into the eye.” 

What’s worse, the report shows that victims are often children. In fact, 36% were under the age of 15.

Kids may not know better, Dr. Simon notes. “When I was a kid, I would get as close to the explosion as I could until someone yelled at me.” 

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The Nonnegotiable Fireworks Safety Rules

Organizations like the National Fire Protection Associationand the National Safety Council recommend leaving all fireworks to the professionals. But that doesn’t stop many people from buying fireworks to impress their friends and neighbors during backyard celebrations and casual neighborhood displays, especially around July Fourth. 

If you’re planning to set off fireworks, follow these safety guidelines:

  • Assign a responsible adult to be in charge of the lighting
  • Closely supervise older children and keep young children back
  • Wear clear safety glasses (you can pick them up at any hardware store)
  • Light fireworks one at a time
  • Direct them away from people, homes, and other flammables
  • Move back to a safe distance—at least 20 feet away—immediately after lighting
  • Don’t shoot fireworks off in a container or can, which may explode or tip over
  • Keep a hose and buckets of water on hand for duds and misfires. 

Fortunately for Tommy, his parents’ quick action paid off.

Upon conducting a full dilation exam the next day, Dr. Simon found no damage to Tommy’s retina. A week later, after a continued regimen of steroid drops, Tommy’s eye had healed, the redness had cleared, and the pain was gone. There were no signs of residual damage. 

“He was lucky,” Dr. Simon says. “I remember looking up the velocity of a bottle rocket. I think it’s about 100 yards a second. That’s the length of a football field. That’s fast.” 

If you suffer a fireworks-related eye injury, seek immediate medical care. Do not rub your eyes or try to remove stuck objects. 

And while doctors often recommend rinsing the eye to treat chemical burns, in this case that may not be smart, as some fireworks are made with chemicals that can react with water, Dr. Simon says. Let the emergency personnel or doctor make that call. 

6 More Ways to Stay Safe Around Fireworks 

  1. Expect the unexpected.Fireworks can be unpredictable, taking errant paths or falling over just before firing. When one 18-year-old male was shooting off fireworks with his friends in the yard, the CPSC reports, one tube fell over and the shell shot into the victim’s eye, causing traumatic iritis.  

  2. Mind the debris.Fireworks wrapped in a paper shell may turn to ash upon explosion, Dr. Simon says. If that ash gets in your eye—even as a spectator—it can scratch the cornea.  

    In one case, a 16-year-old girl who’d been watching a fireworks display—a particularly ashy one—found that once she removed her contact lenses back at home, her eyes hurt. Turned out she had a corneal abrasion.  

    “Probably her contact lenses had shielded her eyes,” Dr. Simon speculates. “When she took the contact lens out, the debris may have come off the lens and floated into her eye.”

  3. Don’t give sparklers to kids.Yes, sparklers are often viewed as a summer rite of passage for kids. But don’t be fooled. 

    “Sparklers are very bad,” says Dr. Simon. “They burn at a very high temperature”—up to 2,000°F, or as hot as a blowtorch—“and kids are usually swinging them around.” 

    A spark can easily burn eye tissue, causing pain, infection, even blindness, he says. 

  4. Don’t try to relight or investigate a dud.It may not be a dud at all. The American Academy of Ophthalmology says your best bet is to soak the dud with water (you remembered that hose, right?) and then discard.

  5. Store fireworks in a cool, dry place.Heat alone is enough to ignite a nearby firework. That’s what happened to a bottle rocket that was sitting next to one 12-year-old boy’s gaming station. When he tried to carry it to the bathroom to douse it with water, it went off in his hand. 

    Check the storage instructions printed on the package. And don’t carry them in your pocket, either—the friction could set them off.

  6. Avoid buying fireworks in brown paper.This is a sign that they are professional display fireworks, which are powerful and dangerous and should never be handled by consumers, the CPSC reports. 

    Consumer fireworks include shells and mortars, multiple tube devices, Roman candles, rockets, sparklers, firecrackers with no more than 50 milligrams of powder, and novelty items. Check your local laws before using any.