Eva lived near the beach and loved to play volleyball. One day she dove to make a play and landed with her face in the sand. She wasn’t hurt, but when she picked herself up, her left eye was blinking constantly and felt gritty and wet. She wiped away the tears, but the eye didn’t seem to get any better.
Eva’s mom took her to see a doctor. The doctor told Eva she had a corneal abrasion that would probably heal just fine in a few days.
What Is a Corneal Abrasion?
Most of your eyeball sits in a pocket of bone called the orbital bone. The orbital bone protects the inner part of the eye, but it can’t protect the part that faces out. This part is covered by a clear tissue called the cornea.
The cornea helps the eye focus and protects other parts of the eye, like the iris (the colored part) and the pupil (the black part), from getting damaged.
A corneal abrasion happens when something scratches, cuts, or scrapes the cornea. Corneal abrasions can sometimes hurt a little bit, and you should see a doctor or nurse if you get one. But don’t worry. They usually heal quickly and don’t cause any lasting problems.
In rare cases, corneal abrasions can become infected and lead to a serious condition called a corneal ulcer. That’s why it’s important to see a doctor to get a corneal abrasion checked out.
What Causes a Corneal Abrasion?
Your eye has other defenses besides the orbital bone: The eyelids and eyelashes work to keep particles out of your eyes. When particles get through and land on your cornea, tears help to wash the particles away. Sometimes, though, a foreign object contacts the cornea in such a way that it scratches, cuts, or damages the surface of the cornea.
Just about anything that gets in your eye can damage the cornea. This includes dust, sand, wood shavings, hay, sparks, bugs, pieces of paper, and even your own fingernail. You name it: if it can get in there, it can make a scratch. The cornea also can be damaged by chemical irritants, improper use of contact lenses, bright lights, and reactions to things like contact lens solutions and eye makeup.
What Are the Signs of a Corneal Abrasion?
Because they affect the way the cornea functions, corneal abrasions cause problems with your vision. Things may appear blurry or you may not be able to see as well as usual. You also might feel a stinging or burning pain in your eye.
Other symptoms can include:
- sensitivity to light
- red or bloodshot eyes
- swollen eyelids
- a watery eye and increased tears
- feeling like something is in your eye (foreign-body sensation)
How Do Doctors Diagnose a Corneal Abrasion?
If you have any symptoms of a corneal abrasion, call a doctor. Corneal abrasions aren’t usually serious, but they still need to be checked out. The doctor can determine the extent of the abrasion and prescribe eye drops to help the healing process.
The doctor will examine your eye and ask you questions about your symptoms and what caused the abrasion. It’s possible you won’t know exactly what caused it, but you’ll probably know when it happened.
In some cases, the doctor will do a test on the eye: A fluid called fluorescein is placed on the surface of the eye, and then the doctor looks at the eye under a light that is filtered cobalt blue. The fluorescein causes the abrasion to glow bright green under the light.
The doctor also might do a standard ophthalmic exam and a slit lamp examination of the eye. These tests are done to check the eye’s vision and functioning.
How Do I Treat a Corneal Abrasion?
You’ll want to see a doctor as quickly as you can to treat a corneal abrasion. In the meantime, though, take these steps and precautions:
- Rinse your eye with clean water or a saline solution. Many schools and workplaces have eye-rinse stations that you can use. Rinsing the eye will help to wash away whatever is irritating your eye.
- Blink several times or pull your upper eyelid over your lower one. Your lower eyelash may be able to brush away something stuck to the underside of your upper eyelid. Pulling on your eyelid will also cause your eyes to produce tears, which can help wash away foreign objects.
- If there is something stuck in your eye, don’t try to remove it yourself. This can lead to further damage to the cornea.
- Don’t rub your eye or touch it with anything like a cotton swab or tweezers. This can make a corneal abrasion worse.
After a doctor has examined your eye, he or she may recommend treatments to help the eye heal more quickly. Doctors also can safely remove any foreign objects stuck in people’s eyes.
To treat a corneal abrasion, your doctor may recommend prescription eye drops or an ointment. If your eye hurts, the doctor may suggest pain medications. If you normally wear contact lenses, the doctor may tell you not to wear them for a few days.
If the corneal abrasion doesn’t heal within a few days or if any of your symptoms get worse after treatment, let a doctor know right away.
How Can I Prevent a Corneal Abrasion?
To help prevent a corneal abrasion, make sure to wear protection for your eyes, such as safety goggles or a facemask, whenever you work with tools, handle chemicals, or participate in sports where your eye could be affected. This includes sports like racquetball, skiing, snowboarding, hockey, and lacrosse.
If you go outside on a sunny day, wear sunglasses designed to block out ultraviolet rays. This is especially important in bright places like beaches and ski slopes.
If you have pets, be careful when you’re playing with them. Cats, dogs, and other animals can act in unpredictable ways and scratch an eye without meaning to.
If you wear contact lenses, make sure they fit properly and use them as directed. Keep your fingernails neatly trimmed to avoid accidentally scratching your eye when putting in or removing your contacts.
Around the house, be extra careful when you use cleaning products, especially drain openers and oven cleaners. Many cleaning products contain harsh chemicals that can burn your eyes. And if you have plants in your yard that you think you might walk into, protect yourself by trimming away any branches located at eye level.
Take a few precautions, and odds are you won’t have to worry about scratching your eye. Almost all corneal abrasions are preventable. And if you do scratch your eye, don’t freak out. It’ll most likely be fine in a couple of days.
Reviewed by: Jonathan H. Salvin, MD
Date reviewed: June 2012