Scratched Eye Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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How to Tell if You Scratched Your Cornea

A corneal abrasion is a superficial scratch on the protective, clear ‘window’ at the front of your eye, otherwise known as the cornea.1

If you experience corneal abrasion, it is best to seek immediate medical attention. If left untreated, corneal abrasions can become infected and lead to a corneal ulcer

Some immediate steps you can take for a corneal abrasion include rinsing your eye with clean water, sterile saline solution, or a sterile saline eye wash. You can use a small, clean glass or an eyecup positioned with its rim resting on the bone at the base of your eye socket.

If you have immediate access to a worksite eye-rinse station, use it. Washing the eye may rinse out foreign particles or objects. 

Blink several times. This can help remove small particles. You can also try pulling the upper eyelid over the lower eyelid. 

This may lead your eye to tear, helping wash out the particle. Or it may lead the lashes of your lower eyelid to brush away a foreign object from under your upper eyelid.

To avoid making the eye injury worse:

  • Do not try to remove an object embedded in your eyeball
  • Do not rub your eye after any eye injuries either
  • Do not touch your eyeball with cotton swabs, tweezers, or other instruments

If you wear contact lenses, do not use them during the natural healing process. Most corneal abrasions heal within a day or two.

Causes of a Scratched Eye 

Injuries to the cornea occur often. Eye injuries to the outer surface may develop from:2

  • Scratches or scrapes on the surface of the cornea 
  • Chemical injuries arising from fluids that reach the eye, particularly alkali burns (such as ammonia or lye) or acid burns (such as car battery acid). 
  • Contact lens issues, including overuse, poor fit, or sensitivity to contact lens care solutions 
  • Foreign bodies, as mentioned below 
  • Ultraviolet injuries, caused by sunlight, blue light, sun lamps, snow or water reflections, or arc-welding
  • Eye infections

Your cornea can be scratched by contact with the following foreign objects:

  • Dirt
  • Sand
  • Wood
  • Dust
  • Shavings
  • Metal particles
  • Contact lenses
  • Paper
  • Plant matter

Corneal abrasions resulting from plant matter, such as a pine needle, usually need special attention. This is because they can lead to delayed inflammation inside the eye. This is known as iritis. They can also cause fungal keratitis (corneal infection from fungi).

You are more likely to experience a corneal eye injury if you:

  • Are exposed to sunlight or artificial ultraviolet light for long periods
  • Have ill-fitting contact lenses or overuse your contact lenses
  • Have significantly dry eyes
  • Work in a dusty environment
  • Use a hammer or power tools without wearing safety glasses 

High-speed particles like chips from hammering metal on metal may become stuck on the surface of the cornea. In some cases, they may penetrate deeper into the eye.

Dry eyes and the improper use of contact lenses may heighten the risk of corneal abrasions. Individuals who experience dry eyes at night can tear the corneal epithelium when opening the eyelids due to the lack of moisture in the eye.

Damaged contact lenses or wearing them for long periods also enhances the risk of a scratched eye.

Symptoms of a Scratched Eye 

The symptoms of a corneal scratch include:

  • Eye pain
  • A gritty sensation in the eye
  • Tearing
  • Redness
  • Sensitivity to the light
  • Light headaches

Potential Complications of a Scratched Cornea

Most people fully recover from minor abrasions without permanent eye damage. 

However, deeper injuries can lead to:

  • Corneal infections
  • Corneal erosion
  • Scarring of the cornea
  • Permanent vision loss

If you do not treat a scratched eye properly, these potential complications can lead to long-term vision issues. Any unusual symptoms should be discussed with your eye doctor.

When to See a Doctor 

Seek emergency care from a doctor if you experience the following:

  • Eye pain
  • Changes in vision
  • Increased sensitivity to light following a scratch or trauma to the eyeball
  • A foreign object stuck in the eye or eyelid or under the eyelid
  • Vision loss
  • Blurred vision
  • An object hitting the eye at high speed or with intense force

Your doctor can provide you with medical advice, treatment, and eye health tips. In severe cases, you may have to visit the emergency room.

Treatment Options for Eye Scratches 

If you have an eye scratch, your eye specialist or doctor may prescribe prescription eye drops or antibiotic ointment to prevent eye infection. They may also provide you with medicated and lubricating drops to relieve pain and redness, along with pain medicine. In some cases, they can fit you with a soft, bandage contact lens to make your eye more comfortable while it heals.

In severe corneal abrasions, your doctor may tape your eye shut and have you wear a patch over your eye to stop light from affecting it.

When your eye is healing, please do not rub it. Do not wear contact lenses (unless they prescribe a bandage contact) either until your doctor says it is safe to do so. Wear sunglasses to reduce any significant discomfort caused by sunlight.

You should completely recover from a minor eye scratch without permanent damage. However, more severe corneal abrasions can cause eye infections, scars, and other issues.

If you do not take care of these problems, you may experience long-term vision issues. Report any unusual symptoms to your eye doctor. This includes a return of pain following treatment.

How Long Will it Take a Scratched Eye to Heal?

A minor eye scratch should heal alone in one to three days. More severe corneal abrasions may take longer.

Can a scratched eye heal on its own?

Most eye scratches are typically treated at home. Eye scratches are common and usually heal on their own, along with some at-home care. 

If your doctor gave you certain care instructions, be sure to follow them.

How to Prevent Eye Scratches 

Many eye scratches can be prevented by taking some simple, common-sense precautions. For example, always wear protective eyewear or safety glasses in work environments with airborne debris, especially in welding environments. 

Proper eye protection should also be used when performing yard work, using power tools, and playing sports.

If you wear contact lenses, always follow your doctor’s instructions on how long to wear them, when to discard them, and the correct contact lens care solutions to use.

If you experience a scratched cornea related to dry eyes, see an eye doctor and follow the dry eye treatment they recommend.

Resources
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Corneal abrasion (scratch): First aid, Mayo Clinic, June 2020, https://www.mayoclinic.org/first-aid/first-aid-corneal-abrasion/basics/art-20056659 

Corneal injury, MedlinePlus, https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001017.htm 

Domingo E, Moshirfar M, Zabbo CP. Corneal Abrasion. [Updated 2020 Jul 12]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532960/ 

Sheppard, Amy L, and James S Wolffsohn. “Digital eye strain: prevalence, measurement and amelioration.” BMJ open ophthalmology vol. 3,1 e000146. 16 Apr. 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532960/ 

InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. Small objects in the eye: Do minor eye injuries heal better with or without an eye patch? [Updated 2020 May 25]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279583/

Walsh, Karen, and Lyndon Jones. “The use of preservatives in dry eye drops.” Clinical ophthalmology (Auckland, N.Z.) vol. 13 1409-1425. 1 Aug. 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6682755/

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