Something just went in one (or both) of your eyes. Maybe it’s a splash of cleaner from a scrub bucket. It could be bits of debris from a project you’re doing. Or perhaps it’s just a pesky bug that took a wrong turn.
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Whatever the liquid or object might be, your eye certainly feels the sting. So, what’s your next move?
Well, let’s start with what NOT to do: “Don’t rub at your eyes,” says ophthalmologist Nicole Bajic, MD. “It’s often your first instinct, but don’t do it. It’s not going to solve the problem and it could make things worse — especially if there is still a foreign body in your eye.”
So, keep those hands away from your face and follow these step-by-step instructions to flush out your eye (or eyes) and see the best possible results.
What to do when something gets in your eye
The initial action you should take if something gets in your eyes will vary depending on what the “something” is. (There’s a bit of a difference if you’re dealing with a liquid chemical vs. a wayward eyelash, for instance.)
But there’s one constant: Don’t wait.
“By and large, people do fine as long as you move to flush the eye right away,” says Dr. Bajic.
So, let’s look at a few situations.
- If it’s a liquid chemical: Start by checking the label for safety instructions. (Odds are you’re late on this, as it probably recommended wearing safety glasses.) Follow the instructions, which usually involve flushing your eyes.
If you don’t have a container label with safety instructions, flush your eyes (more on that in a minute) to dilute the chemical. Plan to follow up with a medical professional.
- If it’s a solid object like a piece of debris, an eyelash or an insect: Look in a mirror and see if the object is near your eyelid. If it’s on the white part of your eye and accessible, try to remove it with a clean cotton ball, tissue or a well-washed finger. (Sometimes, you can very gently move it toward the inner corner of your eye, which will make it safer to remove, as well.)
If the object is on your cornea, don’t start swiping at it. “Trying to poke it out could cause trauma,” warns Dr. Bajic. Instead, look to flush your eye.
How to flush out your eyes
Immediately irrigating your eyes can rinse away any chemical or debris that plopped onto your peepers. It’s a simple process, but there are some basic guidelines to make the flush more effective.
- Wash your hands with soap and water. You’re already dealing with one foreign substance or object in your eye. Cleaning your hands helps ensure you don’t add to the contamination.
- If you’re wearing contacts, take them out.
- Begin flushing out your eye (or eyes) with warm water. “The goal is to get a gentle stream of water or solution running over your eyes to flush out whatever got in,” says Dr. Bajic. Try to keep your eyes open as much as possible during the process.
- Be thorough. Look to spend at least 15 minutes irrigating your eye or eyes if you’re dealing with a chemical exposure. If an object got in your eye, check to see if it has been flushed every few minutes and stop when it’s out.
Flushing your eyes in the shower
Hopping in the shower can be ideal if you’re at home and need to flush out your eyes. Let the warm water hit your forehead and flow down into your peepers. (Important tip: Don’t look straight into the pressurized shower stream. The goal is not to power wash your eyeballs.)
Flushing your eyes at a sink
There are two basic ways to flush your eyes at a sink.
- If your head can fit under the faucet: Set warm water running (not full blast) and bend over the sink, turning your head to the side. Allow the steady stream of water to hit your face so the water runs into your eyes.
- If you can’t fit your head under the faucet: Fill a clean cup or pitcher with warm water. Bend over the sink, tilt your head to the side and slowly pour the water so it flows into your eyes.
If you have a container of saline, eye wash or a gentle multi-purpose contact lens solution handy, feel free to use it, advises Dr. Bajic. Just avoid “super cleaning” solutions or solutions with hydrogen peroxide.
“With tearing, the eye is naturally designed to get particles out by bringing them toward that inner corner,” explains Dr. Bajic. “If you get more fluid in there, you should be able to help coax out whatever is in your eye.”
What to avoid doing when something is in your eye
It was mentioned at the beginning of this article, and it bears repeating: DO NOT rub your eyes if something gets in them. “If something is lodged in your upper eyelid, rubbing it increases your risk of scratching your cornea and doing some real damage,” says Dr. Bajic.
Also, avoid using random medicated eye drops that may be in your house. Putting in the wrong medication can lead to problems if there’s an eye abrasion.
When to call your doctor
Plan on seeing an eye doctor immediately if a thorough flushing doesn’t remove whatever’s in your eye. This is particularly true if an object — such as a glass or metal shard or splinter of wood — penetrates your eye.
“We’ve got special tools and tricks to take things out,” says Dr. Bajic.
An appointment is also recommended if some sort of chemical liquid got in your eye to check for any damage. (If possible, bring the container or even cell phone photos of the container so your healthcare provider can better understand what got in your eye.)
Make sure to see your eye doctor if you experience vision problems or pain in your eye after an incident, too. (Learn more about first-aid tips for other eye injuries.)