Eye injuries

Eye injuries range from the relatively trivial, such as irritating the eye with shampoo, to the extremely serious, which can cause permanent loss of vision.

Eye injuries can occur in many settings, including at home, at work or when playing sports.

Common types of eye injury are:

  • blows to the eye  such as being hit by a fist, elbow or ball
  • scratches and abrasions – such as from fingernails or tree branches
  • foreign bodies – such as small pieces of grit, wood or metal getting in the eye
  • penetrating or cutting injuries – such as cuts from glass or projectiles flung from tools
  • chemical burns – such as exposure to household cleaning products
  • radiation exposure – such as exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun or sun lamps

Wearing contact lenses incorrectly can also injure your eyes, particularly if they are dirty, don’t fit properly or have been worn for too long.

What to do

Minor eye injuries to the front of the eye usually do not require medical treatment and should clear up within 48 hours. If you experience discomfort, painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen may help.

Do not to touch or rub your eye, apply pressure to it or wear contact lenses until it has healed, to prevent further damage.

See your GP or optician if you have any concerns about your injury, or if it is not better within 48 hours.

Flushing your eye

If you have loose particles in your eye, or your eye has been exposed to chemicals, flush it out with an eyewash or plenty of clean water for at least 10 to 15 minutes. If you wear contact lenses, remember to remove them before flushing the eye.

You can flush your eyes in the following ways:

  • Sit down and slant your head so the injured eye is lower than the unaffected eye (ideally over a bath or sink), then use a glass or cupped hand to repeatedly pour water across the eye from the bridge of the nose.
  • If both eyes are affected, tilt your head back (keeping it level) and use a glass or cupped hand to repeatedly pour water across both eyes from the bridge of the nose.
  • If you have access to a shower, aim a gentle stream of warm water at your forehead or just above the affected eye, while holding the affected eye open.
  • If you are working outside, you can use a garden hose to rinse your eye, using a very low flow setting.

All eye injuries caused by chemical exposure should be seen by an eye doctor or nurse as soon as possible after flushing. You should also seek immediate medical advice if there are still any foreign bodies in the eye after flushing it (see below).

Do not try to remove any objects embedded or stuck in the eye yourself, as this can damage the eye further. These should only be removed by an eye expert.

When to seek immediate medical advice

You should go immediately to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department if you have:

  • persistent or severe eye pain
  • foreign bodies that can't be washed out
  • decreased or double vision
  • flashing lights, spots, halos or shadows in your field of vision
  • blood visible in your eye
  • an irregularly shaped pupil (the black dot at the centre of the eye)
  • pain when exposed to bright light
  • deep cuts around your eye
  • your eye is sticking out of your eye socket

You should also go to A&E if your injury was caused by an object flying at speed – for example, a projectile flung from an angle grinder; a very sharp object, such as glass or a knife; or chemical exposure. Flush your eye for at least 10 to 15 minutes before going.

Find your nearest A&E department.

Seeing a doctor

If you have a serious eye injury, you will usually be seen by an eye specialist called an ophthalmologist.

You will be asked you how the injury happened, your vision and eye movements will be checked, then the eye examined to determine how severe the injury is.

If there is a superficial foreign object in your eye, they may remove it using water or a cotton wool bud. Local anaesthetic drops are used to numb your eye before any objects are removed.

You may be prescribed a course of antibiotic ointment or eye drops for a week to help prevent infection. Infections after eye injuries are uncommon, but they can potentially be very serious.

If you have a cut on your eye or damage to the bones around your eye, you may need an operation to repair them.

Depending on the severity of your injury, your doctor may recommend a follow-up appointment with your GP the next day, to check whether your eye is healing.

If your eye has not improved after 48 hours, or if it has got worse, your GP may refer you to an ophthalmologist for further specialist care.

Preventing eye injuries

Many eye injuries are preventable if you take appropriate safety precautions. The following advice can help reduce the risk of sustaining an eye injury.

Protective eyewear

  • Wear safety goggles while using garden equipment, doing DIY or doing any job where there is a risk of objects or chemicals getting into your eyes  such as mowing the lawn, drilling, using an angle grinder, using a hammer and chisel, or spraying chemicals.
  • Wear the appropriate safety eyewear provided for your occupation. For example, if using an arc welder, wear an approved face-mask to prevent sparks and harmful light damaging your eyes.
  • Ideally, wear appropriate eye protection when playing any sport where there is a recognised risk of eye injury, such as squash.

Household chemicals

  • When using household cleaning products, always read the labels carefully, work in a well-ventilated area and make sure any spray nozzles are pointing away from you before spraying.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly when you have finished using cleaning products and make sure you don't rub your eyes.
  • Keep all household chemicals out of reach of children.

Sun safety

  • Avoid looking directly into the sun at all times.
  • When outdoors on sunny days, wear good quality sunglasses.
  • Wear appropriate eye protection when skiing or mountaineering, as these activities can expose your eyes to high levels of UV radiation.
  • Cover your eyes when using sun lamps.

Wearing contact lenses

  • Take care when inserting or removing contact lenses. Follow the directions for keeping them clean and sterilised, and avoid wearing them for long periods of time.
  • Never sleep with your contact lenses in.

Read more about protecting your eyes.

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