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It's common for a speck of dirt to get blown into your eye, for soap to wash into your eye, or for you to accidentally bump your eye. For these types of minor eye injuries, home treatment is usually all that's needed.
Some sports and activities increase the risk of eye injuries.
- Very high-risk sports include boxing, wrestling, and martial arts.
- High-risk sports include basketball, baseball, tennis, fencing, and any shooting activities.
- Low-risk sports include swimming and gymnastics. (There's no body contact or use of a ball, bat, or racquet.)
Blows to the eye
Direct blows to the eye can damage the skin and other tissues around the eye, the eyeball, or the bones of the eye socket. Blows to the eye often cause bruising around the eye (black eye) or cuts to the eyelid. If a blow to the eye or a cut to the eyelid occurred during an accident, be sure to check for injuries to the eyeball itself. And check for other injuries, especially to the head or face. Concern about an eye injury may cause you to miss other injuries that need care.
Burns to the eye
Burns to the eye may be caused by chemicals, fumes, hot air or steam, sunlight, tanning lamps, curling irons or hair dryers, or welding equipment. Bursts of flames or flash fires from stoves or explosives can also burn the face and eyes.
- Chemical burns can occur if a solid chemical, liquid chemical, or chemical fumes get into the eye. Many substances won't cause damage if they are flushed out of the eye quickly. Acids (such as bleach or battery acid) and alkali substances (such as oven cleansers or fertilizers) can damage the eye. It may take 24 hours after the burn to know how serious an eye burn may be. Chemical fumes and vapors can also irritate the eyes.
- Flash burns to the cornea can occur from a source of radiation like the sun or lights. Bright sunlight can burn your eyes if you don't wear sunglasses that filter out ultraviolet (UV) light. These burns are most likely when the sun reflects off snow or water. Eyes that aren't protected by a mask can be burned by exposure to the high-intensity light of a welder's equipment (torch or arc). The eyes also may be injured by other bright lights, such as from tanning booths or sunlamps.
Foreign objects in the eye
A foreign object in the eye, such as dirt, an eyelash, a contact lens, or makeup, can cause eye symptoms.
- Objects may scratch the surface of the eye (cornea) or get stuck on the eye. If the cornea is scratched, it can be hard to tell if the object has been removed. That's because a scratched cornea may feel painful. It may feel like something is still in the eye. Most of these scratches are minor and will heal on their own in 1 or 2 days.
- Small or sharp objects traveling at high speeds can cause serious injury to many parts of the eyeball. Objects flying from a lawn mower, a grinding wheel, or any tool may strike the eye and could puncture the eyeball. Injury may cause bleeding between the iris and cornea (hyphema), a change in the size or shape of the pupil, or damage to the structures inside the eyeball. These objects may be deep in the eye. They may need medical treatment.
In the case of a car air bag inflating, all three types of eye injuries can occur. The force of impact can cause a blow to the eye, foreign objects may enter the eye, and chemicals in the air bag can burn the eye.
You can prevent eye injuries by using protective eyewear. Wear safety glasses, goggles, or face shields when you work with power tools or chemicals. And use this eyewear when you do any activity that might cause an object or substance to get into your eyes. Some professions, such as health care and construction, may require workers to use protective eyewear to reduce the risk of foreign objects or substances or body fluids getting in the eyes. If you have sight in only one eye, wear a sports eye protector under a face shield for added protection.
After an eye injury, you need to watch for vision changes and symptoms of an infection. Vision changes include flashes of light (photopsia) and new floaters. Signs of infection include pain and blurred vision. Most minor eye injuries can be treated at home.
Check Your Symptoms
The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.
- If you are transgender or nonbinary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
- If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
- If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
- Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
- Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
- Medicines you take. Certain medicines, such as blood thinners (anticoagulants), medicines that suppress the immune system like steroids or chemotherapy, herbal remedies, or supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
- Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
- Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.
Try Home Treatment
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
- Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
- Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.
Pain in adults and older children
- Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
- Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days. Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it's severe when it's there.
- Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.
Pain in children under 3 years
It can be hard to tell how much pain a baby or toddler is in.
- Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the baby cannot sleep, cannot get comfortable, and cries constantly no matter what you do. The baby may kick, make fists, or grimace.
- Moderate pain (5 to 7): The baby is very fussy, clings to you a lot, and may have trouble sleeping but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
- Mild pain (1 to 4): The baby is a little fussy and clings to you a little but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
There are a couple of ways to safely remove an object from the eye.
Do not try to remove:
- Any object made of metal.
- Any object that has punctured the eye.
To remove a nonmetal object that is on the surface of the eye or inside the eyelid:
- Wash your hands before you touch the eye.
- Try to gently flush out the object with water.
- If the object is on the white part of the eye or inside the lower lid, wet a cotton swab or the tip of a twisted piece of tissue and touch the end to the object. The object should cling to the swab or tissue.
- Do not use tweezers, toothpicks, or other hard items to remove an object.
Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:
- Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
- Long-term alcohol and drug problems.
- Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety of conditions.
- Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
- Other medicines used to treat autoimmune disease.
- Medicines taken after organ transplant.
- Not having a spleen.
Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in children are:
- Diseases such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell disease, and congenital heart disease.
- Steroid medicines, which are used to treat a variety of conditions.
- Medicines taken after organ transplant.
- Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
- Not having a spleen.
Seek Care Now
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
- Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
- If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
- You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
- You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
- You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.
Call 911 Now
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call 911 or other emergency services now.
Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.
Seek Care Today
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.
- Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
- If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
- If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
- If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.
Make an Appointment
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.
- Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
- If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
- If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.
Most minor eye injuries can be treated at home.
- Use a sterile bandage or cloth.
- If you have a cut on your eyelid, apply a sterile bandage to protect the area. If you don't have a sterile bandage, use a clean cloth.
- Don't use fluffy cotton bandages around the eye. They could tear apart and get stuck in the eye.
- Keep the bandage clean and dry.
- Reduce swelling.
- To reduce swelling around the eye, apply ice or cold packs for 15 minutes 3 or 4 times a day during the first 48 hours after the injury. The sooner you apply a cold pack, the less swelling you are likely to have. Place a cloth between the ice and your skin.
- Keep your head elevated. This helps reduce swelling.
- After the swelling goes down, try warm compresses to help relieve pain.
- Don't use chemical cooling packs on or near the eye. If the pack leaks, the chemicals could cause more eye damage.
- Don't use a piece of raw meat on an injured eye.
- Use pain medicine.
Try a nonprescription pain medicine such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or aspirin to relieve pain. It's not recommended that you take aspirin if you are age 20 or younger.
- Get more help for children.
- Having another adult help you treat the child is a good idea. Using first aid for an eye injury in a child may be hard. It depends on the child's age, size, and ability to cooperate.
- Stay calm, and talk in a soothing voice. Use slow, gentle movements to help the child stay calm and cooperative. A struggling child may need to be held strongly so that first aid can be started and so that you can assess how serious the eye injury is.
If you are concerned that your eye symptoms may be more serious, you may need to check with your doctor.
Using a cold pack
Ice and cold packs can reduce the pain, swelling, and bleeding of an injury. Cold therapy is usually used immediately after an injury.
For an eye injury, use one of the following methods:
- Ice towel.
Wet a towel with cold water and squeeze it until it is just damp. Fold the towel, place it in a plastic bag, and freeze it for 15 minutes. Remove the towel from the bag and place it on the eye. Use this method when an ice pack is too heavy to put on the eye.
- Ice pack.
Place ice in a plastic, leak-proof bag wrapped in a single layer of cloth, such as a towel or washcloth. The ice can be cracked into small pieces to make the pack more flexible. Do not place ice directly on the skin.
- Frozen food pack.
Use a small bag of frozen peas or corn wrapped in a towel.
Do not use chemical cooling packs. If the pack leaks, the chemicals could cause more eye damage. Do not use a raw piece of meat on a black eye.
When to call for help during self-care
Call a doctor if any of the following occur during self-care at home:
- Vision changes, such as blurred vision, loss of vision, or double vision.
- Pain or drainage that does not get better.
- New blood in the eye.
- New sensitivity to light.
- New signs of infection, such as redness, swelling, pus, or a fever.
- Symptoms occur more often or are more severe.
Preparing For Your Appointment
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared for your appointment.
Current as of: October 12, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine