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What to Do in an Eye Emergency? A Guide to Eye Injuries

The eyes are delicate organs that may get damaged easily. Even apparently minor injuries during everyday activities can cause vision loss if left untreated.

In this post, we’ll look at the most common eye injuries and how to deal with them. But first, let’s review the most common causes and symptoms of eye injuries.

Eye Injuries Common Causes

Common causes leading to injuries of the eye include blows from sports items and other objects, punches to the eye, flying materials from fireworks and explosions, chemical splashes, and industrial accidents.

Whether an eye injury occurs at home, at work, or on a sports field, it’s important to treat it carefully. The extent of the injury may not be apparent right away. Also, the injury may increase the risk of infection, which in its turn may damage vision.

Important: Pay attention to your symptoms and don’t downplay or neglect them.

Eye Damage Symptoms

Eye injuries may cause a variety of symptoms ranging from mild to severe. If you experience any of the following symptoms, you may have suffered eye damage and it’s important to get urgent eye care.

  • Decreased vision
  • Loss of vision
  • Double vision
  • Black and blue eye or bruising around the eye
  • Eye that bulges or sticks out
  • Lack of movement or abnormal movement of the eye
  • Cut or damaged eyelid
  • Pain, burning, or irritation
  • Light sensitivity
  • Pupils of a different size

Different eye injuries may come with specific symptoms, and we will cover these below.

What’s an Eye Emergency?

Eye emergencies involve damage to one or more parts of the eye, typically because of an accident, chemical splash, or fight. They may affect your vision right away. Or they may cause damage to the structure of the eye that leads to gradual vision loss.

It’s better to err on the side of caution and seek medical help even if you can bear your symptoms. Delaying getting help may permanently damage your vision.

closeup of red injured eye with bruise beneath

Important: Don’t use over-the-counter eye drops to treat or alleviate the symptoms of an eye injury unless a medical professional asks you to. These products may only make eye injuries worse.

Read on to find out how to handle different types of eye emergencies.

Note: Our advice is based on that provided by the American Academy of Ophthalmology and other trusted sources.

Swelling After Eye Trauma

Being struck in the eye may cause eye swelling with or without bruising, including a black eye. A black eye involves bleeding under the skin. The eyelids may also swell.

As it heals, a black eye may turn blue and then purple, green, and yellow. This is normal. Follow the treatment prescribed by an eye health expert and the eye should return to its normal color.

What to do:

  • Apply a cold compress on the injured eye. Do it gently, without putting any pressure on the eye.
  • If you have a black eye (with or without visual disturbances and pain), it’s best to see a doctor to rule out internal damage to the eye such as a detached retina.

Traumatic Iritis

Traumatic iritis may occur in conjunction with other eye injuries or on its own after eye trauma such as a blow to the eye. It involves the inflammation of the iris, the colored part of the eye.

Symptoms of traumatic iritis can include pain, swelling, tearing, blurry vision, redness, and light sensitivity.

What to do:

  • It’s crucial to see an eye health expert who will decide on the right course of treatment. Not addressing the condition early may lead to permanent vision loss. With adequate treatment, traumatic iritis may go away in a few weeks.
  • Dip a clean cotton washcloth in warm water, wring it out, and apply it to your eye.
  • Be careful not to rub the eye.
  • Wear sunglasses if bright light increases the pain and discomfort.

Eye Bleeding After Injury

Eye bleeding after trauma occurs because of broken blood vessels between the conjunctiva and the white of the eye, the sclera. It’s medically known as a subconjunctival hemorrhage.

Eye bleeding may affect a small part of the eye or the entire eye, depending on the extent of the injury. Because the eyes are sensitive, even small injuries may cause bleeding.

What to do:

  • Although they may look bad, subconjunctival hemorrhages are painless and often resolve on their own without treatment.
  • You can dip a clean cotton compress in cold or warm water and place it over your eye.
  • If the bleeding is severe, you experience discomfort in the eye, or have any other concerns, seek medical care.

Hyphema

More serious than a subconjunctival hemorrhage, hyphema is a type of eye bleeding in between the iris and the cornea. It occurs as a result of eye trauma and requires eye emergency care.

Unlike milder eye bleeding, hyphema is painful and can affect sight. You may experience blurry, cloudy, or blocked vision, as well as light sensitivity.

Hyphema can be tiny and not noticeable. Nevertheless, it’s important to see a doctor.

What to do:

  • Treat hyphema right away. Otherwise, it may damage your vision irremediably.
  • Until you see a doctor, try to limit eye movement.
  • Rest in bed or on a chair with both eyes closed and your head elevated.
  • You can apply an ice pack. Place a clean cloth between your eye and the skin and avoid putting pressure on the eye.
  • Avoid bending over or straining in any way.

Scratched Eye (Corneal Abrasion)

Eye scratches are some of the most common eye injuries. Pet claws, tree branches, or home implements may all cause them. Rubbing at your eyes while you have sand or grit in them may also lead to a scratched eye.

Scratches on the white part of your eye affecting the sclera or the cornea cause redness, pain, tearing, and a feeling that you have something in the eye. You may also notice a scratched line or spot of blood.

A corneal abrasion is more serious. It affects the transparent dome that covers the pupil and iris at the front of the eye. It may cause light sensitivity, blurry vision, and headache. It’s crucial to see a doctor if you have even a minor corneal abrasion as scarring may lead to vision loss.

eye doctor perming exam on patient

All eye scratches increase the risk for eye infections through bacteria or fungi that enter the eye.

What to do:

  • Because the eyes heal very fast, a minor scratch to your eye may heal as quickly as 1 to 3 days. Even so, if it causes you discomfort, it’s good to see a doctor.
  • Avoid rubbing your eye as it may make the injury worse.
  • Don’t patch your eye as that may create the perfect breeding ground for bacteria.
  • Try to keep your eye closed and see a doctor.
  • If you experience light sensitivity, wearing sunglasses may make you feel more comfortable.

Foreign Object in the Eye

Dust or sand particles cause irritation, but you can blink them away or wash them with water.

If metal, glass, or other objects enter your eye, they may become embedded into it causing eye damage and with it pain, redness, and irritation.

Even if the objects have not penetrated the interior of the eye, they may still scar the cornea and cause vision damage.

What to do:

  • Do not try to remove an object stuck in the eye as you may worsen the eye damage.
  • Do not use cotton swabs or tweezers to try to remove the object.
  • You can tape an eye shield or paper cup to your eye before seeking medical help.

Eye Cut or Puncture

A cut or punctured eye requires urgent medical treatment because of the risk of infection and permanent damage to your vision.

Similarly, you also want to address a cut or other damage to the eyelid. Eyelids protect the cornea from small particles and bacteria, help remove debris from the eye, and spread the tear film across the ocular surface. When they cannot function properly, the eyes may suffer.

What to do:

  • Seek urgent medical care.
  • Do not rub the eye, apply pressure to it, or rinse it with water.
  • Place a covering over your eye such as the bottom of a paper cup, which you can tap to the face while waiting for medical help or before going to the hospital.

Chemical Eye Injury

Chemical eye injuries can occur at home, at work, and in a variety of other contexts. They may involve garden chemicals, cleaning products, or industrial chemicals. Fumes may also cause chemical eye burns.

Chemicals may get into the eye after a liquid splash, by being sprayed into it, or from being transferred to it through rubbing.

Acids cause burning and redness in the eye, but flushing them out with water and seeking medical treatment can lead to a full recovery.

Lime, lye, drain and oven cleaners, and other alkaline products are more dangerous. They may cause permanent damage to the eye.

In the case of both acids and alkaline substances, your eye may become very red, and you may experience blurriness and other symptoms.

eye doctor examining patient

Chemical eye injuries carry a high risk of permanent vision loss, so it’s crucial to seek emergency treatment. In the end, the extent of the damage and the outcome depend on the substance in question.

What to do:

  • Flush your eye with cool or barely warm tap water for 15 minutes while holding your eyelid open. You can do this in the shower. Make sure to wash your hands with soap and water first.
  • Try to find out what chemical was involved if possible or ask someone to read the label on the product. Communicate this to your doctor.
  • Put an ice pack wrapped in a cloth or a moist compress on your eye.
  • Avoid rubbing your eye even if it itches.
  • Request urgent eye care or go to a hospital emergency room.

Orbital Blowout Fracture

An orbital blowout fracture is a very serious injury that causes cracks or breaks in the bones surrounding the eye. It’s the result of a major blunt force trauma such as a large, hard object traveling at high speed striking the upper cheekbone and eyebrow.

What to do:

  • Request urgent medical care.
  • Apply ice wrapped in a clean cloth to the injured area. Do not apply ice directly to the skin.
  • Avoid putting direct pressure on the eye or the injured area.
  • Avoid blowing your nose as this may increase pressure in your eyes.

Eye Injuries and Dry Eyes

Eye injuries that affect the tear glands, eyelids, tear drainage ducts, or the surface of the eye may cause dry eyes. Leaving dry eyes untreated can cause eye inflammation followed by corneal abrasion and ulcers that may permanently damage vision.

If you’ve developed dry eyes because of an eye injury or for other reasons, getting your eyes tested can help protect your vision.

Our dry eye test can help you find out whether you have dry eye symptoms. It’s quick and easy.

Take the Dry Eye Test.