Don’t Rub It! First Aid Tips for 5 Eye Irritants + Injuries

Find out what to treat yourself and when to get help
docotr checks patient with eye injury

Even if you do your best to protect your eyes, accidents do happen. Then you wonder if it’s OK to rub it or whether you should rinse it — and whether to call for help.

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Most eye injuries, like getting soap or a tiny foreign body in the eye, are minor. Others, such as those that occur in some work environments or during sports play, require prompt medical attention.

Five most common eye injuries and how to handle them

If you’re looking for the best way to treat an eye injury or how to remove an irritant or object stuck in your eye, these tips from ophthalmologist Peter McGannon, MD, are for you:

1. Foreign objects in the eye

“Whether it’s a grain of sand, eyelash, or other tiny object, your first instinct may be to rub your eye, but don’t do it,” says Dr. McGannon.

Rubbing the eye — or trying to remove an object with your finger — may end up abrading the cornea and creating a much more serious situation, he says.

Instead, allow your tears to flow in response to the irritation. If that doesn’t flush it out, rinse the eye with clean water or with sterile saline solution. If your eye continues to bother you, or the foreign body remains, contact your eye doctor or head to the nearest urgent care or ER if an your eye doctor is not available.

2. Chemicals in the eye

Industrial chemicals and some household cleaning solutions cause serious damage when splashed into the eye.

If you get a chemical solution in your eye, rinse it out with clean water or saline solution immediately and thoroughly, preferably for at least 15 minutes. You may need to hold the eye open to allow the water or saline solution to properly flush it out.

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Immediately seek medical attention after flushing to make sure no serious harm occurred. “Any time you work with chemicals at a job, or even when you use strong household cleaning products, you should be wearing eye protection,” says Dr. McGannon.

3. A blow to the eye

People of all ages play sports and, at some point, may suffer a blow to the eye from a ball or some other object during a game.

“Gently hold a cold compress or ice pack against the eye, taking care not to put any pressure on it,” Dr. McGannon says. “Keep your head upright to reduce swelling.”

Visit your local urgent care center or eye doctor if pain persists or if the injury affects your vision.

4. A puncture wound to the eye

A puncture wound to the eye requires immediate attention in an urgent care or emergency room setting. Don’t attempt to flush out or remove anything stuck in the eye and avoid rubbing your eye and the area around it.

“Protect your eye from accidental pressure or rubbing by covering it with a firm, circular object such as a foam or paper coffee cup,” says Dr. McGannon.

Tape the protective cover over the eye, preferably with first aid tape. Have someone drive you immediately to the nearest emergency room for evaluation.

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5. A cut to the eye or eyelid

Unless it’s a very minor cut in the skin around the eye, this injury typically requires immediate medical attention, Dr. McGannon says.

Do not attempt to wash a cut eye or eyelid. Instead, without adding pressure to the eyeball, apply a clean cloth or sterile bandage to the area. Avoid using fluffy cotton or similar materials around the eye because fibers could stick in the area and cause more pain and irritation.

Seek immediate evaluation at an urgent care or emergency center.

Take active steps every day to protect your eyes

Accidents sometimes occur despite our best preventive efforts. But take a mindful, deliberate approach to eye protection and safety and you may avoid the worst ones, Dr. McGannon says.

“Properly fitted, activity-specific eye protection can go a long way toward preventing some of the most serious trauma to the eyes,” he says.

Always wear eye protection when you:

  • Play sports.
  • Work with lawn equipment.
  • Use household cleaners or chemicals.
  • Work with heavy machinery.
  • Do any construction or renovation work.

It’s also a good idea to keep specific supplies for treating eye injuries in your home first aid kit. Purchase these at your local pharmacy and you’ll be prepared to properly cope with most any future eye injuries.

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