Eye Emergencies

Written by Ann Pietrangelo | Published on July 2, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is an Eye Emergency?

An eye emergency occurs anytime you have a foreign object or chemicals in your eye, or when an injury or burn affects your eye area.

Remember you should seek medical attention if you ever experience swelling, redness, or pain in your eyes. Without proper treatment, eye damage can lead to a partial loss of vision or even blindness.

Symptoms of Eye Injury

Eye emergencies cover a range of incidents and conditions—each with their own distinct symptoms.

You should contact your eye doctor or physician if it feels like you have something in your eye, or if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • loss of vision
  • burning or stinging
  • pupils that are not the same size
  • one eye is not moving like the other
  • one eye is sticking out or bulging
  • eye pain
  • decreased vision
  • double vision
  • redness and irritation
  • light sensitivity
  • bruising around the eye
  • bleeding from the eye
  • blood in the white part of the eye
  • discharge from the eye
  • itching
  • headache

If you’ve received an injury to your eye, or if you have sudden vision loss, swelling, bleeding, or pain in your eye, you should visit an emergency room or urgent care center.

What Not to Do if You Have an Eye Injury

Serious complications can occur from an eye injury. You should not attempt to treat yourself. Although you may be tempted, be sure not to:

  • rub or apply pressure to your eye
  • try to remove foreign objects that are stuck in any part of your eye
  • use tweezers or any other tools in your eye—cotton swabs can be used, but only on the eyelid
  • put medications or ointments in your eye

If you wear contact lenses, do not take them out if you think you have suffered an eye injury. Attempting to remove your contacts can make your injury worse.

The only exceptions to this rule are in situations where you have a chemical injury and your lenses did not flush out with water, or where you cannot receive immediate medical help.

The best thing you can do in an eye emergency is to get to your doctor or other healthcare professional as soon as possible.

Chemical Injuries to the Eye

Chemical burns result when cleaning products, garden chemicals, or industrial chemicals get into your eyes. You can also suffer burns in your eye from aerosols and fumes.

If you get acid in your eye, early treatment generally results in a good prognosis. However, alkaline products—like drain cleaners, sodium hydroxide, lye, or lime—can permanently damage your cornea.

If you get chemicals in your eye, you should take the following steps:

  • Turn your head so the injured eye is down and to the side.
  • Hold your eyelid open and flush with cool tap water for 15 minutes. This can also be done in the shower.
  • If you are wearing contact lenses and they are still in your eye after flushing, try to remove them.
  • Get to an emergency room or urgent care center as quickly as possible. If possible, continue to flush your eye with clean water while you are waiting for an ambulance or traveling to the medical center.

Small Foreign Objects in the Eye

If something gets in your eye, it can cause eye damage or a loss of vision. Even something as small as sand or dust can cause irritation.

Take the following steps if you have something small in your eye or eyelid:

  • Try blinking to see if it clears your eye. Do not rub your eye.
  • Wash your hands before touching your eye. Look into your eye to try to locate the object. You may need someone to help you with this.
  • If necessary, look behind your lower lid by pulling it down gently. You can look under your upper lid by placing a cotton swab on the lid and flipping the lid over it.
  • If the foreign object is stuck on one of your eyelids, flush it with water. If the object is in your eye, flush your eye with cool water.
  • If you cannot remove the object or if the irritation continues, contact your doctor.

Large Foreign Objects Stuck in Your Eye

Glass, metal, or objects that enter your eye at high speed can cause serious damage. If something is stuck in your eye, leave it where it is.

Do not touch it, do not apply pressure, and do not attempt to remove it. This is a medical emergency and you should seek help immediately. Try to move your eye as little as possible while you wait for medical care. If the object is small and you are with another person, it may help to cover both eyes with a clean piece of cloth. This will reduce your eye movement until your doctor examines you.

Cuts and Scratches

If you have a cut or scratch to your eyeball or eyelid, you need urgent medical care. You may apply a cold compress while you wait for medical treatment, but be careful not to apply pressure.

Sustaining a Black Eye

You usually get a black eye when something hits your eye or the area surrounding it. Bleeding under the skin causes the discoloration associated with a black eye.

Typically, a black eye will appear as black and blue and then turn purple, green, and yellow over the next few days. Your eye should return to normal coloring within a week or two. Black eyes are sometimes accompanied by swelling.

A black eye can also be caused by a skull fracture. If your black eye is accompanied by other symptoms, you should seek medical care.

Preventing Eye Injury

Eye injuries can happen anywhere, including at home, work, athletic events, or on the playground. Accidents can happen during high-risk activities, but also in places where you least expect them.

However, there are things you can do to decrease your risk of eye injuries, including:

  • Wear protective eyewear when you use power tools or engage in high-risk sporting events. You are at increased risk anytime you are around flying objects, even if you are not participating.
  • Follow the directions carefully when working with chemicals or cleaning supplies.
  • Keep scissors, knives, and other sharp instruments away from young children. Teach older children how to use them safely and supervise them when they do.
  • Do not let your children play with projectile toys, such as darts or pellet guns.
  • Childproof your home by either removing or cushioning items with sharp edges.
  • Use caution when cooking with grease and oil.
  • Keep heated hair appliances, like curling irons and straightening tools, away from your eyes.
  • Keep your distance from amateur fireworks.

To decrease your chances of developing permanent eye damage, you should always see a physician after you experience an eye injury.

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