July 18, 2019

The Dangers of Rubbing Itchy Eyes

From scratching your cornea and introducing allergens to causing infections, there’s many reasons to keep your hands out of your eyes

Older man rubbing his eyes

Rubbing our eyes: It’s something we all mindlessly do once — or a few times — a day. We know we’re not supposed to rub them, because our parents told us not to. But we still do it.

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We do it because our eyes are tired, or itchy, or irritated. Because we’ve been crying or standing too close to a smokey barbecue. We do it because the words we’ve spent hours staring at on our laptop are starting to blur. But we definitely don’t rub our eyes when we’re chopping onions or making our famous mango habanero salsa. We know better! That could end very badly!

But here’s the thing: rubbing your eyes could always end badly.

That’s why optometrist Weston Tuten, OD, says we should take extra care when interacting with both the delicate skin surrounding our eyes and our eyeballs themselves. He explains why rubbing your eyes is bad for you — and why it’s so, so tempting to do it anyway.

Is it bad to rub your eyes?

In a word: Yes. It’s bad to rub your eyes. And, Dr. Tuten adds, it’s even worse to rub your eyes with unwashed hands.

Eyes are delicate pieces of equipment, and rubbing at them can cause both structural damage and disease. So why exactly do we do it?

If it's so bad, why does it feel so good?

In a cruel twist of fate, rubbing your eyes is bad for you, but feels pretty darn good. That’s because our eyes are designed to respond to that sensation. When you apply pressure to your eyes, it stimulates the tear ducts. The lubrication those extra tears create can relieve dryness and irritation. It might even help wash allergens out of the eye.

But that’s not all! Humans also have something called an oculocardiac reflex (OCR). When you place pressure directly on your eyeballs, your trigeminal and vagus nerves send a signal down your spine to your heart, letting you know that you’re safe. The result: your heart rate and blood pressure go down, which helps you relax. Now you know why you rub your eyes when you’re frustrated or stressed!

What happens if you rub your eyes too much?

We’ve established that your eyes are at their healthiest when they’re finger-free. But what happens if you go to town on them anyway? If you’re lucky, nothing! But if you keep it up, there’s a whole laundry list of potential problems in your future.

Worsening allergies

Allergies are one of the most common reasons people rub their eyes. But, Dr. Tuten explains, that can be self-defeating. If there’s enough dust, pollen, or pet dander floating around to irritate your eyes, you can bet it’s on your hands too. So, when you rub your eyes, you could be adding more allergens into the mix.

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But that’s not all! Dr. Tuten notes that rubbing your eyes also speeds up histamine production: that means more redness, swelling and irritation.

Cornea issues

“It’s possible to scratch your cornea with a nail as you’re rubbing, leading to an abrasion,” Dr. Tuten says. “You can also misdirect your eye lashes. If you do that, they’ll continually poke your cornea with each blink.” Ouch!

It’s important to note that there are certain conditions that can cause compulsive eye rubbing, like chronic allergies, nearsightedness (myopia), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and Down syndrome.

“Over time, all of that rubbing can lead to a decrease in corneal strength,” Dr. Tuten says.

It’s even possible to cause corneal astigmatism or nearsightedness with excessive eye rubbing. It’s called keratoconus: Basically, your cornea bulges out.

“When the cornea weakens, it can develop a cone, instead of being a smooth dome. This cone will bend light in the wrong way, and glasses won’t correct the vision,” Dr. Tuten says. Patients with keratoconus have to use specialty contact lenses to achieve 20/20 vision.

Retinal tears

You have to rub your eyes pretty hard and pretty frequently to cause a retinal tear or detachment, but it can happen. Retinal tears and detachments cannot heal on their own. They require specialist care and invasive repair procedures.

Pink eye and other infections

Need we remind you where your hands have been? Your hand hygiene game may be beyond reproach, but that doesn’t make your hands sterile instruments. When you rub your eyes, you’re exposing them to viruses, bacteria, and all sorts of creepy crawlies. The result, all to often, is a nasty infection.

The most common eye infection is conjunctivitis, also known as “pink eye.” Other usual suspects include blepharitis, styes, cellulitis, and endophthalmitis.

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What can you do instead?

We’ve all had moments where we gave in to the temptation to rub our eyes. And we’ve all done it without thinking. What’s done is done. Pobody’s nerfect. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to do better in the future.

So, what can you do to alleviate eye discomfort that doesn’t have the potential to do damage? Dr. Tuten recommends using either a cool, damp compress, or eye drops.

“You can cool down the drops before using them to make them more comfortable,” Dr. Tuten suggests. “You could also use preservative-free artificial tears, also cooled, to provide more comfort.”

If allergies are the culprit, Tuten notes that there are both prescription and over-the-counter drops that can bring some needed relief.

If you find yourself battling eye irritation on a regular basis, you may also want to consider:

  • Taking regular breaks to rest your eyes when reading, writing, gaming, or doing anything that involves intense focus.
  • Speaking to your provider if you have severe allergies or chronically dry eyes. You may need prescription-strength medication.
  • Getting humidifiers for your bedroom, office and other high-traffic areas.
  • Keeping doors and windows closed, especially when pollen counts are high and your seasonal allergies are in overdrive.
  • Changing clothes more frequently, showering at night, and changing your bed linens more often when your allergies are bothering you.
  • Protecting your eyes when you go out with a good pair of sunglasses.
  • Using blue light filtering glasses when you’re staring at screens to prevent eye strain.
  • Keeping your hands occupied with fidget toys or other distracting items.
  • Wearing gloves or mittens when the urge to rub your eyes gets too great.

Useful in-sight

Rubbing your eyes feels great. It promotes tear production while simultaneously reducing our heart rate and blood pressure. It’s relaxing, and in some cases, can offer some temporary relief from irritation. But the effect is only temporary.

In the long term, pawing at your peepers isn’t good for them. You can make your allergies worse, damage the cornea or retina, or give you a nasty infection. Instead of taking that chance, doctors recommend soothing irritated eyes with eye drops, compresses, and — if you need it — allergy medication. If eye irritation is a chronic issue for you, see your provider to make sure you don’t have an underlying health issue that needs treatment. You can also take steps to protect your eyes, like wearing sunglasses outside, using humidifiers, and keeping your hands occupied with fidget toys.

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