An abrasion is a scratch.
Just like any part of the body, the surface of the eye—the cornea—can be scratched.
Unlike other parts of the body, however, eyes can trap a foreign body in the mucus of the eye or under the eyelid, where the foreign body can continue to cause damage.
While scratches can result from large objects, corneal abrasions also result from contact with small particles such as dust, sand, or debris from hobbies like woodworking, gardening, or even cooking.
Corneal abrasions are also known as corneal erosions.
If you feel like there is something in your eye, resist the urge to rub your eye. Rubbing or applying pressure to the eye will press the foreign body deeper into the eye.
The outer layer of the cornea is covered by epithelial cells that protect the surface. A corneal abrasion may result from dragging a piece of debris across the surface and scraping off the epithelial cells.
The resulting damage to the surface of the cornea will cause sharp pain. In fact, it may continue to feel like there is something in the eye, even after the debris is removed. Blinking will intensify this feeling. Tearing is a natural result of the irritation. Other symptoms may include redness, light sensitivity, headache, or even blurred vision.
Causes of trauma to the cornea may also be more sudden:
- projectiles glancing into the uncovered eye,
- contact with brush from running into a branch or other object,
- accidental fingernail scratches,
- acid burns,
- cooking mishaps,
- flying fragments from working with hammer and chisel,
- player-to-player contact during sports,
- workplace hazards from sanding, drilling, welding,
- falling material from DIY projects in which the head is tilted back so that small particles can fall into the eyes.
As with all accidents, prevention is the best policy.
Workplace safety rules should be followed diligently, especially those mandating safety glasses.
Harvard Medical School estimated that more than 9 out of 10 corneal abrasions can be prevented by wearing safety glasses. Such glasses should cover the eye entirely. An eye care professional can help ensure that the fit of the eyewear is sufficient to give protection for the desired activity.
OSHA offers guidelines on when and where goggles should be worn. Workplace safety guidelines also cover preventing high-risk behaviors, such as tilting the head back to work on something above the head, allowing small particles to be pulled by gravity into the face and eyes.
It is crucial to consider protective eyewear during gardening and home improvement projects as well. Many hobbyists who work with their face close to their project also can reduce their risk of trauma to the eye by wearing glasses to shield the eyes from unexpected debris.
There ways to reduce risk of corneal abrasions in specific demographics:
- Children should be made aware of the danger that wayward pens, pencils, and other projectiles can cause.
- Infants should have their nails kept trimmed, and when possible, covered by mittens or fold-over sleeves on their sleepers, to prevent them from unintentionally scratching their eyes with sharp fingernails.
- Both children and adults who participate in sports should talk to their optometrist or ophthalmologist about what particular eyewear is recommended for their sport.
- People who have certain corneal diseases and dystrophies are already at a more significant risk of developing corneal erosions, according to the University of Michigan’s Kellogg Eye Center. Even in the absence of any apparent trauma, corneal damage can occur.
The last demographic is a large one.
Contact lens wearers need to be especially careful. Foreign particles can become trapped between the cornea and the contact lens, especially if the lenses are not properly cleaned before being put in the eye. In addition, no one should sleep in their lenses unless they have special overnight contacts. Washing hands before handling contacts is helpful in reducing risk of corneal abrasion.
While superficial corneal abrasions can heal in a day or two, more severe damage can take months to heal and can be very painful. Seek medical attention if you think you have damaged your cornea or the rest of your eye. Resist the urge to rub your eye, instead flushing out foreign material with water.