What is a Scratched Eye?
A scratched eye or a corneal abrasion is a superficial scratch on the protective, clear ‘window’ at the front of the eye, otherwise known as the cornea.
Symptoms of a corneal scratch include:
If you have a corneal abrasion, seek immediate medical attention. A severe corneal abrasion can lead to vision problems and infection.
Causes of a Scratched Eye
Corneal injuries are common and can be caused by:2
- Scratches or scrapes on the surface of the cornea
- Chemical injuries such as alkali burns (such as ammonia or lye) or acid burns (such as car battery acid)
- Overusing contact lenses
- Poorly fitted contact lenses
- Sensitivity to contact lens care solutions
- Ultraviolet (UV) injuries caused by sunlight, blue light, sun lamps, snow or water reflections, or arc-welding
- Eye infections
- Foreign objects
Foreign Objects in the Eye
Your cornea can also be scratched by contact with foreign objects, such as:
- Metal particles
- Contact lenses
- Plant matter
These objects can become lodged inside the upper eyelid, damaging the cornea whenever you blink. When this happens, wash the dirt out of your eye with clean water or a saline solution.
Corneal abrasions from plant matter, such as pine needles, usually need special attention. This is because they can lead to delayed inflammation inside the eye (iritis). They can also cause fungal keratitis (corneal infection from fungi).
Can a Scratched Eye Heal on its Own?
Most corneal abrasions heal in 1 to 3 days without any lasting damage. However, more severe corneal abrasions take longer.
If you need treatment for a corneal abrasion, your vision should recover without any problems. Report any unusual symptoms to your eye doctor, including recurring pain following treatment.
Risk Factors of a Scratched Eye
Dry eyes and the improper use of contact lenses increase the risk of corneal abrasions. If you experience dry eyes at night, it can tear the corneal epithelium when opening your eyelids (due to the lack of eye moisture).
High-speed particles, like chips from hammering metal on metal, can also get stuck on the cornea's surface. In some cases, they penetrate deeper into the eye.
You are more likely to experience a corneal eye injury if you:
- Are exposed to sunlight or artificial UV 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
- Have damaged contact lenses or wear them for longer than recommended
Potential Complications of a Scratched Cornea
Most people fully recover from minor abrasions without permanent eye damage. However, more serious injuries can lead to:
- Corneal infections
- Corneal erosion
- Scarring of the cornea
- Long-term vision problems
If you don’t properly treat a scratched eye, these potential complications can lead to long-term vision issues. Discuss any unusual symptoms with your eye doctor.
When to See a Doctor
Seek emergency medical care if you experience any of the following:
- Eye pain
- Vision changes
- 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 medical advice, treatment, and eye health tips. In severe cases, you might have to visit the emergency room.
How to Prevent Eye Scratches
You can prevent eye scratches by taking simple, common-sense precautions. For example:
- Wearing protective eyewear or safety glasses in work environments
- Wearing proper eye protection when doing yard work or using power tools
- Using protective gear and eyewear when playing sports
- Following your doctor’s instructions when wearing contact lenses and how long you should wear them
- Knowing when to discard contact lenses
- Using the right contact lens solution
If you have a scratched cornea due to dry eyes, see an eye doctor and follow the recommended treatment protocol.
Treatment Options for Eye Scratches
If you have an eye scratch, your eye doctor might prescribe or provide the following:
- Antibiotic eye drops or ointment
- Medicated lubricating drops
- Pain medicine
- 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.
How to Heal a Scratched Eye
After removing a foreign object from your eye or undergoing treatment, your eye will need some time to heal. Although a corneal abrasion won’t heal overnight, most people will feel better after 24 hours.
Tips for healing from eye scratches include:
- Don’t rub your eye while it’s healing
- Don’t wear contact lenses (unless they prescribe a bandage contact) until your doctor says it’s safe
- Wear sunglasses to reduce discomfort caused by sunlight
It's important to treat a scratched eye before it worsens. Learning about the different risk factors and causes of a scratched eye can help prevent it.
Most scratched eyes will heal in 1 to 3 days. If dirt or other foreign objects enter your eye, wash them with water or saline solution.
Different treatment options are available for scratched eyes. Visit a doctor if you experience severe symptoms.
In this article