What to do: Eye exposures

Close up of two people's eyes. Eye exposures

Most household products can irritate eyes and a few can cause real harm. Prompt irrigation with plain water is vital after eye exposures, 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 can become infected and cause permanent vision loss.

What to do for eye exposures


The best way to irrigate is in the shower. Run any temperature water you find comfortable and stand facing the water. Let the water 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 throw them away.

If your child won’t tolerate the shower: Run a bath of plain water (no bubbles). Make a game of it, with lots of splashing and pouring. Your 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. However, for caustic substances (like degreasers or toilet bowl cleaners) you may need to irrigate for 30 minutes. Set a timer or have someone else watch the time for you. This ensures you irrigate long enough.

What to do next

Tap water can be hard on the eyes. After irrigation they will likely feel a little dry and irritated. Let them rest for 15 minutes before deciding whether you need to do more. You may find it helpful to lay down, close your eyes and lay a cool washcloth over them.

Don’t use medicated drops after eye exposures. They can irritate your eyes even more and make it hard to know if you need medical care.

What to watch for

What’s normal: Your eyes may be pink and a little puffy after irrigating them. Your vision may be slightly hazy for a short time.

What’s not normal: Pain, vision changes or feeling like there is sand or an eyelash in your eye. These can mean you’ve injured your cornea, and you need immediate medical attention. You can have permanent vision loss if you don’t get treatment.

Don’t ask a small child if her eyes hurt. Let her go back to her normal activities. Watch for signs of irritation, like excessive blinking, watering or rubbing. If irrigation doesn’t clear these up, or if you can’t do a thorough irrigation, your child will need medical attention.

Getting medical care

If you need medical care, 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. 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 eyes, so take eye exposures seriously and treat them promptly.

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