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What is a foreign object in the eye?

A foreign object in the eye is something that enters the eye from outside the body. It can be anything that does not naturally belong there, from a particle of dust to a metal shard. When a foreign object enters the eye, it will most likely affect the cornea or the conjunctiva.

The cornea is a clear dome that covers the front surface of the eye. It serves as a protective covering for the front of the eye. Light enters the eye through the cornea. It also helps focus light on the retina at the back of the eye.

The conjunctiva is the thin mucous membrane that covers the sclera, or the white of the eye. The conjunctiva runs to the edge of the cornea. It also covers the moist area under the eyelids.

A foreign object that lands on the front part of the eye cannot get lost behind the eyeball, but they can cause scratches on the cornea. These injuries usually are minor. However, some types of foreign objects can cause infection or damage your vision.

If you have a foreign object in your eye, you probably will experience immediate symptoms. You may experience:

Cases in which a foreign object penetrates the eye are rare. Typically objects that enter the eye are the result of an intense, high-speed impact like an explosion. Foreign objects that penetrate the eye are called intraocular objects. Additional symptoms of an intraocular object include discharge of fluid or blood from the eye.

Many foreign objects enter the conjunctiva of the eye as a result of mishaps that occur during everyday activities. The most common types of foreign objects in the eye are:

  • eyelashes
  • dried mucus
  • sawdust
  • dirt
  • sand
  • cosmetics
  • contact lenses
  • metal particles
  • glass shards

Dirt and sand fragments typically enter the eye because of wind or falling debris. Sharp materials like metal or glass can get into the eye as a result of explosions or accidents with tools such as hammers, drills, or lawnmowers. Foreign objects that enter the eye at a high rate of speed pose the highest risk of injury.

If you have a foreign object in your eye, prompt diagnosis and treatment will help prevent infection and potential loss of vision. This is especially important in extreme or intraocular cases.

Removing a foreign object yourself could cause serious eye damage. Get immediate emergency treatment if the foreign object:

  • has sharp or rough edges
  • is large enough to interfere with closing your eye
  • contains chemicals
  • was propelled into the eye at a high rate of speed
  • is embedded in the eye
  • is causing bleeding in the eye

If you have a foreign object embedded in your eye, or you’re helping someone with this problem, it’s important to get medical help immediately. To avoid further injury to the eye:

  • Restrict eye movement.
  • Bandage the eye using a clean cloth or gauze.
  • If the object is too large to allow for a bandage, cover the eye with a paper cup.
  • Cover the uninjured eye. This will help prevent eye movement in the affected eye.

You should also seek emergency treatment if the following symptoms are present after any type of object is removed:

  • You still have a sensation of having something in your eye.
  • You have abnormal vision, tearing, or blinking.
  • Your cornea has a cloudy spot on it.
  • The overall condition of your eye worsens.

If you suspect you have a foreign object in your eye, it’s important to get treatment promptly to avoid infection and the possibility of damaged vision. Take these precautions:

  • Do not rub or put pressure on the eye.
  • Do not use any utensils or implements, such as tweezers or cotton swabs, on the surface of the eye.
  • Do not remove contact lenses unless there is sudden swelling or you have suffered a chemical injury.

If you suspect you have a foreign object in your eye, or you’re helping someone who has one, take the following steps before starting any home care:

  • Wash your hands.
  • Look at the affected eye in an area with bright light.
  • To examine the eye and find the object, look up while pulling the lower lid down. Follow this by looking down while flipping up the inside of the upper lid.

The safest technique for removing a foreign object from your eye will differ according to the type of object you’re trying to remove and where it’s located in the eye.

The most common location for a foreign object is under the upper eyelid. To remove a foreign object in this position:

  • Immerse the side of your face with the affected eye in a flat container of water. While the eye is under water, open and close the eye several times to flush out the object.
  • The same results can be accomplished using an eyecup purchased from a drugstore.
  • If the object is stuck, pull out the upper lid and stretch it over the lower lid to loosen the object.

Shop for eyecups.

To treat a foreign object located beneath the lower eyelid:

  • Pull out the lower eyelid or press down on the skin below the eyelid to see underneath it.
  • If the object is visible, try tapping it with a damp cotton swab.
  • For a persistent object, try to flush it out by flowing water on the eyelid as you hold it open.
  • You also can try using an eyecup to flush out the object.

If there are many tiny fragments from a substance, such as grains of sand in the eye, you will have to flush out the particles instead of removing each one individually. To do this:

  • Use a wet cloth to remove any particles from the area surrounding the eye.
  • Immerse the side of your face with the affected eye in a flat container of water. While the eye is under water, open and close the eye several times to flush out the particles.
  • For younger children, pour a glass of warm water into the eye instead of immersing it. Hold the child face up. Keep the eyelid open while you pour water into the eye to flush out the particles. This technique works best if one person pours the water while another holds the child’s eyelids open.

Contact your physician if the foreign object in your eye has conditions that warrant emergency treatment or if:

  • You did not succeed in removing the foreign object at home.
  • Your vision remains blurred or otherwise abnormal after the removal of the foreign object.
  • Your initial symptoms of tearing, blinking, or swelling persist and do not improve.
  • The condition of your eye worsens despite the removal of the foreign object.

If you get treatment from your physician, you may undergo an examination that includes the following steps:

  • An anesthetic drop will be used to numb the eye’s surface.
  • Fluorescein dye­, which glows under special light, will be applied to the eye via an eye drop. The dye reveals surface objects and abrasions.
  • Your physician will use a magnifier to locate and remove any foreign objects.
  • The objects may be removed with a moist cotton swab or flushed out with water.
  • If the initial techniques are unsuccessful at removing the object, your physician may use needles or other instruments.
  • If the foreign object has caused corneal abrasions, your physician may give you an antibiotic ointment to prevent infection.
  • For larger corneal abrasions, eye drops containing cyclopentolate or homatropine may be administered to keep the pupil dilated. Painful muscle spasms could occur if the pupil constricts before the cornea heals.
  • You will be given acetaminophen to treat pain from larger corneal abrasions.
  • A CT scan or another imaging study may be required for further investigation of an intraocular object.
  • You may be referred to ­a physician who specializes in eye care, known as an ophthalmologist, for further assessment or treatment.

If you succeeded in removing a foreign object from your eye, your eye should begin to look and feel better in about one to two hours. During this time, any significant pain, redness, or tearing should subside. An irritating sensation or minor discomfort may remain for a day or two.

The surface cells of the eye are restored quickly. Corneal abrasions caused by a foreign object usually heal in one to three days and without infection. However, infections are more likely if the foreign object was dirt particles, a twig, or any other object containing soil. Call your doctor if your symptoms aren’t improving.

Intraocular foreign objects can result in endophthalmitis. This is an infection of the inside of the eye. If an intraocular foreign object damages the cornea or lens of the eye, your vision could be damaged or lost.

Foreign objects that may land in your eye accidently during everyday activities can be difficult to anticipate or avoid.

Certain work or leisure activities are more likely to emit airborne objects that could land in your eye. You can prevent getting a foreign object in your eye by wearing protective eyewear or safety glasses when you’re doing activities that could involve airborne objects.

To prevent getting a foreign object in your eye, always wear protective eyewear when:

  • working with saws, hammers, grinders, or power tools
  • working with dangerous or toxic chemicals
  • using a lawn mower