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If a foreign object gets in your eye, it is important to act quickly. Minor objects can be safely removed at home, while more serious eye injuries require professional medical treatment.
One of the most common risks of getting something in your eye is corneal abrasion, or a scratch on the cornea. While most corneal abrasions heal on their own, recurrent corneal erosion is possible.
Closely observing your symptoms is the best way to gauge the severity of the eye injury. Minor injuries caused by dirt or small twigs typically heal on their own, while serious injuries can cause pain, bleeding, and vision changes.
If you have sustained a serious injury to the eye, such as that caused by a sharp object, chemical, or high-speed object hitting the eye, you most likely need to see a doctor right away. Not all eye injuries need to be seen by a doctor, however. Call your doctor to determine if your eye issue can be treated at home.
What to Do When Something Gets in Your Eye
A range of small items can get into your eye at any given time. Sand from the beach, dust in the wind, small twigs, or even small bugs can land in your eye and cause serious discomfort. Objects such as these can typically be rinsed out thoroughly without causing any true damage to the eye. More harmful objects, such as splinters, flying rocks, or construction debris, can cause serious damage to the eye.
If something has gotten in your eye, special precautions must be taken for how to treat the situation. Depending on the severity of the injury, it is possible to safely remove the object from your eye at home. In more serious cases, it’s best to get treatment from a professional eye doctor or even the emergency room.
One of the most common risks of getting something in your eye is corneal abrasion. In the event of a corneal abrasion, a small object, such as a splinter, gets into the eye and scratches the surface of the cornea.
While it can be uncomfortable, corneal abrasions typically heal entirely within two to three days. Complications can arise, so a trip to the eye doctor may be warranted if you have any concerns.
Symptoms of corneal abrasions that return after a few weeks or months are referred to a recurrent corneal erosion (RCE). Although it occurs in less than 1 out of 100 who sustain an eye injury, RCE happens when the cornea doesn’t heal properly.
Symptoms associated with RCE include:
- Eye pain after waking up.
- Light sensitivity.
- Watery eyes.
- Cramps in the eyelids.
- Blurry vision.
RCE should be treated by an eye doctor. An eye doctor will be able to correctly diagnose your problem and provide effective treatment.
How to Gauge the Severity of the Injury
Gauging the severity of an eye injury is an important indicator for what type of treatment you pursue. Minor eye injuries, such as dirt or small twigs that get in the eye without causing damage, can certainly be uncomfortable, but they are also likely to clear up relatively quickly on their own once the foreign object is out of the eye.
The Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG) explains that you likely have a severe eye injury if:
- Something is stuck high under your eyelid that won’t come out.
- Your eye is red or uncomfortable (if you wear contact lenses).
- You have substantial eye pain.
- There is a noticeable change to the appearance of the eye.
- Your eye is bleeding or oozing.
If your eye symptoms clear after a few hours and the appearance of your eye has not changed drastically, you likely have a minor eye injury that can be addressed at home. Presence of any combination of the above symptoms indicates a more severe injury that should be treated by a doctor.
When to See a Doctor
Many mild eye injuries can be treated at home or clear up on their own within a day or two. However, some instances warrant immediate medical care in order to protect your vision.
Seek medical care right away if:
- A strong chemical got in your eye.
- A sharp object pierced your eye.
- Something flew into your eye at a high speed.
- You experience changes to your sight after the injury.
- You experience headache, fever, or sensitivity to light.
- You feel sick after sustaining an eye injury.
- You are not able to move your eye or keep it open.
- Your eye is bleeding.
- Discharge is coming out of your eye.
Any of the above symptoms warrant immediate medical care, either in an emergency room or at eye doctor’s office. Ignoring the above symptoms could have serious consequences on your long-term vision and eye health.
At-Home Care for Minor Eye Issues
While it is alarming any time something gets in your eye, not all eye injuries need to be treated in an emergency room or by an eye doctor.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) has compiled a guide for how to treat various eye injuries. At-home care suggestions include the following:
- Blink repeatedly to get tears to flush out any object or particles in your eye.
- Lift the upper eyelid over the eyelashes of the lower lid to let the eyelashes try to brush the object out.
- Use running water, saline solution, or eye wash to flush out the eye.
- Do not rub your eye.
- Do not put eye drops or ointments on your eye until told to do so by an eye doctor.
If a splinter or foreign object is stuck in your eye and not coming out, don’t try to remove it any further on your own. Doing so risks scratching your cornea.
If the foreign object won’t come out of your eye after trying the above steps, go to an eye doctor or emergency room right away. They will often be able to remove the object quickly and easily without causing further damage.
Eye Injuries. (June 2019). National Health Service UK.
Recognizing and Treating Eye Injuries. (February 2019). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Small Objects in the Eye: Overview. (May 2020). Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care.