You might think there’s nothing more annoying than having something in your eye that you just can’t seem to get out—until “that something” turns out to be a scratch in your eye.
A scratched eye, or a corneal abrasion, isn’t just one of the most annoying eye injuries, it’s also one of the most common. In fact, scratched corneas are so common they account for up to nearly 10 percent of all eye-related doctors’ visits, according to the American Family Physician.
What is a corneal abrasion?
A corneal abrasion is a scratch on the cornea, the clear, protective front portion of the eye that covers the iris (the colored part of your eye).
For many, it’s difficult to distinguish between having something in your eye or having a corneal abrasion. However, as you can imagine, unlike having something like dust or an eyelash in your eye, a scratched cornea can have a serious, long-term impact on your vision and eye health, especially if the cornea is scarred while healing. So, it’s very important for you to see your eye doctor immediately if you suspect you may have a corneal abrasion.
How do you scratch your cornea?
While your cornea serves as a protective cover for your eye, it’s a soft, flexible membrane. Because your cornea is soft and pliable, it tends to scratch easily. In fact, something as small as a speck of dust, when rubbed across your cornea, can result in an uncomfortable, disruptive corneal abrasion.
The two most common contributors to eye injuries, including corneal abrasions, are sports and housework, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Although a corneal abrasion can be caused by almost anything, the most common causes are:
- Getting poked in the eye
- Foreign objects, such as dust, dirt, metal, or sand
- Overwearing of contact lenses
- Poor contact lens hygiene
- Excessive or aggressive rubbing of the eye
Signs of a corneal abrasion
Everyone reacts differently to a corneal abrasion. Some will feel discomfort immediately, while others might notice symptoms that tend to increase in severity for hours.
Regardless of when the signs and symptoms of a corneal abrasion appear, they almost always include one or more of the following:
- Excessive tearing
- Eye pain
- Sensitivity to light
- A sensation of sand or grit in your eye
- Blurred vision
Treating a corneal abrasion
When you have something in your eye, no matter how bad you have the urge to, do not rub it! In most cases, rubbing—or even touching—your eye will only make the situation worse.
As mentioned earlier, a corneal abrasion will require medical attention. However, to help relieve immediate symptoms of eye discomfort, you can take the following steps:
- Blink repeatedly
In case you haven’t noticed, you blink a lot: between 15,000 and 20,000 times every day! Each time your eyelids close, your tear glands release salty secretions over the eye. These secretions flush away foreign matter while cleaning and lubricating your eye. When you notice something in your eye, scratch or not, blink several times to flush any particles causing the irritation out of the eye.
- Rinse with distilled water or saline eye wash
Rinsing your eye might help flush-out whatever it is causing the irritation to your eye. However, if possible, always try to use distilled water or a rinse specifically designed for the eyes, like a saline eye wash solution. Tap water (especially from a well), and even bottled water, have been known to contain microorganisms that can cause very serious, and in some cases, vision-threatening infections to an eye that has a corneal abrasion.
- Gently pull your top eyelid over your lower eyelid
This suggestion might sound a bit odd, but by gently pulling your top lid down over your lower lid can cause your eye to water and help rinse out whatever’s causing the irritation. Interestingly, doing this also helps by allowing the eye lashes on your lower lid to brush against the inside of your upper eyelid, potentially helping to remove any irritants that could be trapped beneath your upper eyelid.
If the above steps do not relieve eye discomfort and irritation, you’ll need to seek further attention from a medical professional.
What to expect from your eye doctor
When examining your eye for a corneal abrasion, it’s fairly common for ophthalmologists to add numbing eye drops to help relax the eye and to keep it open during the eye exam. In addition, eye doctors might also use an eye drop that contains a non-permanent dye to better help locate, and evaluate the severity, of the abrasion. Lastly, your eye doctor might use a cotton swab to gently gather a culture in order to rule out infection of the damaged area.
Treating minor corneal abrasions
Like any injury, treatment for a corneal abrasion will depend on the severity and cause of the injury. Most corneal abrasions are minor scratches that can be treated with over-the-counter lubricating eye drops. In these cases, the OTC eye drops aren’t actually treating the injury, rather they help to keep your eyes moist while also supporting the body’s healing process. In most cases, your doctor will also prescribe antibiotic eye drops to fend off infection while the eye heals.
Most minor corneal abrasions heal within one to three days.
Treating more severe corneal abrasions
Treating more severe corneal abrasions often requires more intensive therapy to relieve discomfort and minimize the risk of permanent damage to your vision. In these cases, your doctor will most likely use a long-lasting antibiotic ointment specially formulated for the eye. Your doctor might also prescribe medication to relieve pain and reduce sensitivity to light. In these situations, it’s also common for a prescription steroid to be used to reduce inflammation in and around the eye.
More severe corneal abrasions take longer to heal and run the risk of developing scarring that could have lasting effects on your vision.
Preventing corneal abrasions
If you wear contact lenses, you can reduce your chances of suffering a corneal abrasion by making sure to follow your optometrist’s instructions pertaining to how long you should wear them, when to change them, and by making sure to always use the recommended contact lens solution.
While you’ll never be able to prevent all eye injuries, there are several steps that you can take to reduce the chances of suffering a corneal abrasion. To start, it’s very important to wear protective glasses or safety goggles whenever you are working in an environment that can produce airborne debris, this includes when you are working in the yard, cleaning the house, and even when you are playing sports.