National Institutes of Health recommendations for eye emergencies
Eye emergencies include cuts, scratches, objects in the eye, burns, chemical exposure, and blunt injuries to the eye or eyelid. Certain eye infections and other medical conditions, such as blood clots or glaucoma, may also need prompt medical care. Since the eye is easily damaged, any of these conditions can lead to vision loss if untreated.
It is important to get medical attention for all major eye or eyelid injuries and problems. Eye problems (such as a painful red eye) that are not due to injury still need urgent medical attention.
- A black eye is usually caused by direct trauma to the eye or face. The bruise is caused by bleeding under the skin. The tissue around the eye turns black and blue, gradually becoming purple, green, and yellow over several days. The abnormal color disappears within 2 weeks. Swelling of the eyelid and tissue around the eye may also occur.
- Certain types of skull fractures can cause bruising around the eyes, even without direct injury to the eye.
- Sometimes, serious damage to the eye itself occurs from the pressure of a swollen eyelid or face. A hyphema is blood in the front area of the eye. Trauma is a common cause and is often due to a direct hit to the eye from a ball.
- A chemical injury to the eye can be caused by a work-related accident. It can also be caused by common household products, such as cleaning solutions, garden chemicals, solvents, or many other types of chemicals. Fumes and aerosols can also cause chemical burns.
- With acid burns, the haze on the cornea often clears and there is a good chance of recovery.
- Alkaline substances -- such as lime, lye, drain cleaners, and sodium hydroxide found in refrigeration equipment -- may cause permanent damage to the cornea.
- It is important to flush out the eye with clean water or salt water (saline) while seeking urgent medical care.
Eyelid and eye cuts
- An injury to the eyelid may be a sign of severe injury to the eye itself.
- Foreign object in the eye and corneal injuries
- The cornea is the clear (transparent) tissue covering the front of the eye.
- Dust, sand, and other debris can easily enter the eye. Persistent pain, sensitivity to light, and redness are signs that treatment is needed.
- A foreign body in the eye may threaten vision if the object enters the eye itself or damages the cornea or lens. Foreign bodies thrown at high speed by machining, grinding, or hammering metal have the highest risk of injuring the eye.
Depending on the type of injury, any of the following symptoms may be present:
- Bleeding or other discharge from or around the eye
- Decreased vision
- Double vision
- Eye pain
- Itchy eyes
- Loss of vision, total or partial, one eye or both
- Pupils of unequal size
- Redness -- bloodshot appearance
- Sensation of something in the eye
- Sensitivity to light
- Stinging or burning in the eye
Take prompt action and follow the steps below if you or someone else has an eye-related injury.
SMALL OBJECT ON THE EYE OR EYELID
The eye will often clear itself of tiny objects, like eyelashes and sand, through blinking and tearing. If not, take these steps:
1. Tell the person not to rub the eye. Wash your hands before examining it.
2. Examine the eye in a well-lighted area. To find the object, have the person look up and down, then from side to side.
3. If you cannot find the object, grasp the lower eyelid and gently pull down on it to look under the lower eyelid. To look under the upper lid, you can place a clean cotton-tipped swab on the outside of the upper lid and gently flip the lid over the cotton swab.
4. If the object is on an eyelid, try to gently flush it out with clean water. If that does not work, try touching a second cotton-tipped swab to the object to remove it.
5. If the object is on the eye, try gently rinsing the eye with clean water. If available, use an eye dropper positioned above the outer corner of the eye. Do not touch the eye itself with the cotton swab.
A scratchy feeling or other minor discomfort may continue after removing eyelashes and other tiny objects. This will go away within a day or two. If the person continues to have discomfort or blurred vision, get medical help.
OBJECT STUCK OR EMBEDDED IN EYE
1. Leave the object in place. Do not try to remove the object. Do not touch it or apply any pressure to it.
2. Calm and reassure the person.
3. Wash your hands.
4. Bandage both eyes. If the object is large, place a paper cup or cone over the injured eye and tape it in place. Cover the uninjured eye with gauze or a clean cloth. If the object is small, cover both eyes with a clean cloth or sterile dressing. Even if only one eye is affected, covering both eyes will help prevent eye movement.
5. Get medical help right away. Do not delay.
CHEMICALS IN THE EYE
1. Flush with cool tap water right away. Turn the person's head so the injured eye is down and to the side. Holding the eyelid open, allow running water from the faucet to flush the eye for 15 minutes.
2. If both eyes are affected, or if the chemicals are also on other parts of the body, have the person take a shower.
3. If the person is wearing contact lenses and the lenses did not flush out from the running water, have the person try to remove the contacts after the flushing procedure.
4. Continue to flush the eye with clean water or saline while seeking urgent medical attention.
5. Seek medical help right away. Do not delay.
EYE CUTS, SCRATCHES, OR BLOWS
1. Gently apply cold compresses to reduce swelling and help stop bleeding. Do not apply pressure to control bleeding.
2. If blood is pooling in the eye, cover both eyes with a clean cloth or sterile dressing.
3. Seek medical help right away. Do not delay.
1. Carefully wash the eye. Place a patch over the eye. If the cut is bleeding, apply gentle pressure with a clean, dry cloth until the bleeding stops.
2. Rinse with water, cover with a clean dressing, and place a cold compress on the dressing to reduce pain and swelling.
3. Seek medical help right away. Do not delay.
- Do not press or rub an injured eye.
- Do not remove contact lenses unless rapid swelling is occurring, there is a chemical injury and the contacts did not come out with the water flush, or you cannot get prompt medical help.
- Do not attempt to remove a foreign body or any object that appears to be embedded in any part of the eye. Get medical help promptly.
- Do not use cotton swabs, tweezers, or anything else on the eye itself. Cotton swabs should only be used on the eyelid.
When to contact a medical professional
Seek emergency medical care if:
- There appears to be a scratch, cut, or something has gone into (penetrated) the eyeball
- Any chemical gets into the eye
- The eye is painful and red
- Nausea or headache occur with the eye pain (this may be a symptom of glaucoma or stroke)
- There is any change in vision (such as blurred or double vision)
- There is uncontrollable bleeding
Always wear protective eye gear when:
- Using power tools, hammers, or other striking tools
- Working with toxic chemicals
- Cycling or participating in sports where there is a high likelihood of injury to the eye, such as indoor racket sports
Henley GW. Eye emergencies. In: Wolfson AB, Hendey GW, Ling LJ, Rosen CL, eds. Harwood-Nuss’ Clinical Practice of Emergency Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2009:chap 54-61.
Sharma R, Brunette DD. Ophthalmology. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al., eds. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Mosby; 2009:chap 69.
Update Date: 5/9/2013
Updated by: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.