Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have drastically increased our use of hand sanitizer. Unfortunately, that also means more of us have gotten errant globs of it in our eyes.

When the alcohol found in hand sanitizers comes into contact with your or your child’s eyes, it can cause uncomfortable symptoms like sharp pain, redness, and swelling.

The good news is that if you immediately flush your eye, hand sanitizer is unlikely to cause long-term damage. However, it’s still a good idea to seek medical attention if the pain doesn’t subside within a couple of hours to avoid scarring that may permanently impair your vision.

Here’s what you can do if you get hand sanitizer in your eyes to minimize your risk of developing complications.

Most hand sanitizers contain alcohol to kill bacteria and germs that can potentially make you sick. Commercially available hand sanitizers in the United States contain 60 to 95 percent alcohol in the form of ethanol alcohol or isopropyl alcohol.

Alcohol has the potential to cause chemical burns on the outermost layer of your eye called the cornea. Your cornea is a transparent layer that covers your eye and helps direct light toward your retina.

If you get hand sanitizer in your eye, you may experience symptoms such as:

  • redness
  • stringing or burning pain
  • blurry vision
  • tearing
  • trouble keeping your eye open
  • swelling

Alcohol may damage the surface of your eye, but it’s unlikely to cause damage to the deeper structures.

Even so, any time you splash a chemical in your eye constitutes an eye emergency. If your pain doesn’t subside within a couple of hours, you should seek medical attention. A medical professional can assess the damage and recommend the best treatment to avoid permanent scarring.

A 2020 case study describes a 32-year-old woman who went to an emergency department after accidentally squirting 70 percent alcohol hand sanitizer directly into her left eye. The woman experienced intense pain and blurry vision immediately afterward.

Upon examination, it was found that she had damage to 80 percent of the outer layer of her cornea. However, the wound healed completely after 2 weeks without any loss in vision.

If you get hand sanitizer in your eye, it’s important to avoid rubbing it and to flush your eye as soon as possible. You should flush your eyes for at least 20 minutes with clean, room temperature tap water after a chemical splash.

You can use your shower or a sink to flush your eye. You can also use an emergency eyewash station if you have access to one. No matter which method you use, make sure the water isn’t hot to avoid further damage to your eye.

If you’re using a shower, aim a gentle stream of water at your forehead above your eye. Hold your eyelids open as you let the water flush your eye.

If you’re using a sink, bend over the basin and turn on the faucet to a gentle flow. Tilt your head to the side and let the water flow into your eye.

If your child gets hand sanitizer in their eyes, it’s important that they quickly rinse their eyes out to avoid long-term damage. If they experience sharp pain, you should take them to an eye doctor or somewhere they can receive emergency medical care.

To flush your child’s eye, you can have them lie in the bathtub or lean over a sink as you can pour a stream of water gently on their forehead or bridge of their nose.

The FDA recommends children younger than 6 should use hand sanitizer with adult supervision since it can be potentially dangerous when ingested. Even drinking a small amount can cause alcohol poising.

If your child ingests hand sanitizer, you should contact Poison Control (800-222-1222 in the United States) or seek emergency medical attention.

In many cases, pain and irritation will subside within a couple of hours after flushing your eye with water. However, if you’re experiencing persistent sharp pain, got a large amount of hand sanitizer in your eye, or your symptoms don’t get better within a couple of hours, it’s a good idea to see an eye care professional or get emergency medical attention.

A doctor may irrigate your eyes again even if you’ve already done it. They can also use pH strips to make sure all of the alcohol is gone and perform an eye examination to assess the degree of damage.

Getting hand sanitizer in your eye can cause sharp pain, swelling, and damage to the outer layer of your eye called the cornea.

If it happens to you or your child, you should flush the affected eye with room temperature water. If the pain doesn’t subside afterward, seek medical attention to avoid scarring.