Most household products can irritate eyes and a few have the potential to cause real harm. Prompt irrigation with plain water is vital, and it needs to continue long enough to be effective.
Eyes heal very quickly and permanent damage is not common, but left untreated even a minor injury may become infected and lead to permanent vision loss.
What to do
The best way to irrigate is in the shower. Run any temperature water you find comfortable and stand facing the water, letting it hit your forehead and run over your face. It isn’t necessary to hold your eyes open, just keep blinking as the water runs over them.
If you don’t have access to a shower use another source of clean, running water.
If you are wearing contact lenses, remove them before or during irrigation and discard them.
If your child won’t tolerate the shower: Run a bath of plain water (no bubbles) and make a game of it with lots of splashing and pouring. As with the shower, the child just needs to blink while the water runs over her face. It may be helpful to have another child in the tub.
How long to do it: You usually want to irrigate for about 15 minutes, although for caustic substances (like degreasers or toilet bowl cleaners) you may need to continue for 30 minutes. Setting a timer or having someone else watch the time for you will help make sure you irrigate long enough.
Tap water can be hard on the eyes and after irrigation they will likely feel a little dry and irritated. Let them rest for another 15 minutes after irrigation before deciding if further action is needed. You may find it helpful to lay down, close your eyes and lay a cool washcloth over them.
Don’t use medicated drops after an eye exposure. They can irritate your eyes even more and make it hard to determine whether you need medical care.
What’s normal: Your eyes may be pink and a little puffy after irrigating them, and your vision may be slightly hazy for a short time.
What’s not normal: Pain, any vision change that doesn’t clear up quickly, or feeling like there is sand or an eyelash in your eye. These suggest injury to the cornea and require immediate medical attention. Failing to get treatment for an eye injury may lead to permanent vision loss.
Don’t ask a small child if her eyes hurt. Let her return to normal activities and watch for signs of irritation such as excessive blinking, watering or rubbing. If irrigation doesn’t clear these up, or if you are not able to perform a thorough irrigation, your child will need medical attention.
Getting medical care
If medical care is needed, it is usually best to go to an emergency room. A thorough eye exam requires a slit lamp, which is a kind of upright microscope used to look closely for injuries. Emergency rooms have slit lamps but most doctor’s offices and urgent care clinics don’t.
For a minor corneal abrasion you will likely be sent home with an antibiotic ointment, a pain reliever and instructions to follow up with an opthamologist. If you have a severe injury, they will try to bring in a specialist to see you right away.
Healthy eyes recover from superficial injuries very quickly but you only get two, so take exposures seriously and treat them promptly.