Locations:
Search IconSearch

The Dangers of Rubbing Itchy Eyes

From scratching your cornea and tearing your retina to introducing allergens and causing infections, pawing at your peepers just doesn’t pay off

person holding wearing glasses, holding cell phone and rubbing their eye

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.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

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 that 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.

Advertisement

Worsening allergies

Allergies are one of the most common reasons people rub their eyes. But Dr. Tuten says 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.

Further, Dr. Tuten says that rubbing your eyes also speeds up histamine production, which 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 explains. “You can also misdirect your eyelashes. If you do that, they’ll continually poke your cornea with each blink.” Ouch!

It’s important to note that certain conditions 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,” he adds.

It’s even possible to cause corneal astigmatism or nearsightedness with excessive eye rubbing. It’s called keratoconus, which is basically when 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 clarifies. People 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 can’t 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 too 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.

What can you do instead?

We’ve all had moments where we gave in to the temptation to rub our eyes. 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,” he suggests. “You could also use preservative-free artificial tears, also cooled, to provide more comfort.”

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

If you find yourself battling eye irritation regularly, you may also want to consider:

  • Taking periodic 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.

Advertisement

Useful in-sight

Rubbing your eyes feels great. It promotes tear production while simultaneously reducing your 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 just isn’t good for them. If you find the urge too strong to resist, alternate remedies aren’t cutting it or you suspect an underlying condition, see a healthcare provider — they can help you find ways to stay hands off.

Advertisement

Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Adult receiving eye drops from a healthcare provider
May 10, 2024/Eye Care
When Is It Too Late To Treat Lazy Eye?

While it’s best to fix amblyopia during childhood, it can also be addressed as an adult

Person vacuuming around living room
April 17, 2024/Eye Care
5 Tips for Coping With Geographic Atrophy

Preserving your social life and protecting your mental health are key to living well with vision loss

Person holding up sunglasses
April 16, 2024/Eye Care
9 Tips for Living Well With Geographic Atrophy

Start low-vision rehabilitation as soon as possible and see your retina specialist at least every six months

Colorblind glasses showing houses on shoreline in color
April 11, 2024/Eye Care
What We Know About Color Blind Glasses

These trendy glasses might brighten some shades and help you see the difference between colors or brightness of hues, but they won’t cure your color vision deficiency

Variety of foods that contain the antioxidant lutein
April 4, 2024/Nutrition
What Is Lutein? Learn About Its Health Benefits

This powerful carotenoid can help with your eye and skin health, LDL reduction and cognitive function

Person with pink eye
March 22, 2024/Eye Care
Here’s How To Get Rid of Pink Eye Fast

Eye drops and cold water rinses can help speed up healing for viral and allergen-related conjunctivitis, but a bacterial infection will need antibiotics

Eye doctor holding glasses and a prescription
March 20, 2024/Eye Care
Got a New Eye Prescription? Here’s What It Means

Your eye prescription reveals a lot about your eye health, including how they’re shaped, how well you see and what your new glasses can do for your sight

solar eclipse
March 7, 2024/Eye Care
The Total Solar Eclipse Is Coming — Here’s How To View It Safely

It’s critical to have the proper eyewear if you plan to look up at the sun, especially during the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims

Ad