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From finger pokes to flying sand, here’s how to handle just about every eye injury — including knowing when it’s time to call in the pros.
What’s the most dangerous place for your eyes? The home. Yours.
You like to think of your home as your safe place, but consider all of the potential trouble spots: Trying to get dinner on the table, you can get splattered by grease. Keeping up with the Jones’s, you can get hit with dust, debris, or projectiles while doing home repairs or yard work. And if you have little ones running around the house, who knows what will wind up in their eyes—or yours!
In fact, nearly half of the 2.4 million eye injuries in the United States happen in and around the home, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). Of course, this means the other half happen when you’re at work, at play, or by chance.
In other words: Stuff happens.
Take a deep breath. This handy first-aid primer will get you through the most common eye injuries.
For All Eye Injuries: Fight These Urges
The list of what not to do if you hurt an eye is pretty short:
- Don’t touch, rub, or apply pressure to your eye.
- Don’t attempt to remove any object that has punctured your eye.
- Don’t put ointments or medication of any kind on your eye.
Doing any of the above may only make things worse, according to optometrist Laurie Lesser, O.D.
As for what you should do? It depends on the eye injury. Here's your guide.
Eye Injury #1: You Get Debris in Your Eye
Sawdust, flecks of makeup, slivers of metal—there’s no end to the list of tiny particles that can wind up in your eye. When it feels like there’s something stuck:
- Blink frequently and give your tears a chance to wash it out, or use artificial tears.
- If the particle is very small, like sand, try flushing it out with eyewash, which is made with a sterile saline solution. Only use regular water as a last resort. “There are parasites in tap water, so it shouldn’t be your first choice,” says Dr. Lesser, who recommends keeping eyewash in your first-aid kit.
- If you wear contact lenses, now’s the time to take them out. Switch over to your eyeglasses for rest of the day.
Time to call the eye doctor: Still feel the debris after a couple hours? Or does it feel funny when you blink even though the eye flushing cleared the debris?
“You may have scratched your cornea,” which covers your iris and pupil, says Dr. Lesser. Most corneal abrasions heal on their own, she says, but some require prescription eye drops or ointments in order to prevent scarring and protect your vision.
Eye Injury #2: You Get Smacked in the Eye
When the kids’ horseplay gets a little too rough, a ground ball takes a bad bounce, or a group hug goes horribly awry:
- Gently hold a small, cold compress or cloth-covered ice pack to the area for five to 10 minutes at a time.
Time to call the eye doctor: A black eye, severe pain that lingers, and trouble seeing are all cues to get to an eye doctor ASAP. “Even a light hit to the eye area can sometimes lead to a serious eye condition,” like a detached retina, she says.
Eye Injury #3: Your Eye Gets Scratched
Eye pokes and stray sticks can scrape the tender surface of your eye and leave it red, watery, and irritated. To get rid of the sensation that something’s stuck:
- Rinse with eyewash.
- In case there actually is debris in your eye, blink often to encourage tearing.
Time to call the eye doctor: If symptoms don’t improve, or if you’re experiencing blurriness or light sensitivity, your eye doctor will check to see if you’ve damaged your cornea, says Dr. Lesser.
Eye Injury #4: You Get Gunk in Your Eye
A little soap or shampoo in the eye is usually no big deal. But many ordinary cleaning products contain chemicals like alkalis and bleach that can cause serious eye damage—quickly. In fact, common household products cause 125,000 eye injuries every year, according to the AAO. If you’ve been splashed:
- Immediately flush the eye gently with eyewash or cool, clear water for several minutes. “Ordinarily you don’t want to use regular water in your eye, but this is the exception to that rule,” says Dr. Lesser.
- Get emergency treatment right away.
Eye Injury #5: You Cut or Puncture Your Eye
Usually the stuff of horror flicks, puncture wounds to the eye are more run-of-the-mill than you think. The AAO notes that 25% of all eye injuries involve an open wound—making it the second most common type of eye injury.
“Puncture wounds and cuts to the eye often are the result of people thinking they don’t need to wear protective eyewear,” says Dr. Lesser. That’s an understatement; data from the AAO shows that 90% of eye injuries could be prevented with safety glasses.
If you’re dealing with a worst-case scenario, the most important thing is to seek emergency treatment right away. If you have something that you can quickly use as a protective shield, such as the bottom of a clean paper cup, cover the eye without touching it. But don’t spend time looking for a shield. Just get medical help—quickly.
“These are serious injuries,” says Dr. Lesser. Calling an eye doctor for guidance is a good first instinct, she says, but whenever there’s blood or protruding objects involved, the best thing to do is get to the ER, stat.
The Best Treatment for Eye Injuries? Prevention
According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, more than 78% of respondents weren’t wearing protective eyewear when they got hurt. And only 35% said they wear safety glasses when working around the house.
If you’re doing any activity that involves hazardous liquids or flying debris, you need to protect your eyes.
You can find the proper gear at most hardware stores. Look for “ANSI Z87.1” on the lenses or frame, a code that indicates that the glasses are approved by the American National Standards Institute.