The risks that come with rubbing your eyes

Reasons why you shouldn’t rub your eyes

Itchy eyes are a common problem with a variety of causes, such as with allergies, contact lens use, lack of sleep, and eye strain due to excessive screen time. Whatever the cause, rubbing your eyes should never be the solution as it can lead to serious, and sometimes permanent, damage.

Rubbing your eyes can cause permanent changes

Your cornea (the transparent surface that covers the front part of the eye) can become permanently misshapen if rubbed too often. In turn, this can lead to permanent vision changes, or in rare cases keratoconus, an eye condition in which a thin cornea becomes cone-shaped instead of round. This irregular corneal shape distorts light, leading to poor vision that cannot be corrected with normal glasses or contact lenses.

Scratches to the cornea

From time to time, we all get something in our eye, a fleck of dust or an unknown particle. Our instincts are often to rub our eyes to remove the foreign body but this can actually cause that particle to scratch the surface of the cornea. This is known as a corneal abrasion, a tiny scratch that is extremely painful. Corneal abrasions can lead to conjunctivitis (pink eye) and sensitivity to light. It may also require prescription eye drops to fully heal.

Eye rubbing can cause infection

From your smartphone to doorknobs, your hands encounter many surfaces on a given day, most of which carry plenty of germs. Rubbing your eyes with your hands risks introducing these germs into the eye which can cause infections, such as pink eye.

Aggravate allergy symptoms

Allergy sufferers are familiar with the itchy, irritated eyes that come around during the warm months of the year as flowers bloom and grass grows. Many will rub their eyes to get some relief, but this winds up doing more harm than good. As a response to allergens in the eye, the body’s immune system sends out "allergen removers" (called mast cells), which release histamines and acid to combat the allergens; this is what causes the symptoms of an allergic reaction, like itchy eyes. By rubbing your eyes, however, the mast cells can be ruptured, in turn releasing large amounts of acid/histamine into your already-sensitive eyes and causing the itching to intensify.

Eye-rubbing: not a good look

Rubbing your eyes can create physical changes to the eyes, too. Since the skin underneath the eyes is very thin, the rough gesture of rubbing your eyes can thin the skin even further and cause tiny blood vessels to burst, thereby creating the appearance of dark circles under the eyes. Eye rubbing can also make already-bloodshot eyes look even worse when blood vessels pop in the whites of the eyes.

Remedies for itchy eyes

Itchy eyes can be very bothersome, regardless of the cause. Here are some remedies to try instead of rubbing your eyes for relief:

  • Lubricating eye drops: You can find these over-the-counter drops at the pharmacy. Pro tip: unless the directions say otherwise, keep the drops in the fridge; you’ll find the colder temperature can be very soothing to itchy eyes.
  • Saline eyewash: A sterile, saline eyewash can help flush out particles that may be stuck in your eyes and it can also provide a cooling, soothing effect.
  • Prescription drops or medication: If the over-the-counter solutions aren’t working for you, visit your eye doctor. They can prescribe specialized drops or oral medication that may help.
  • Antihistamines: If your symptoms are related to allergies, your eye doctor can prescribe antihistamine eye drops. Similarly, you can also try an over-the-counter oral antihistamine; some can provide relief for up to 24 hours.
  • Cold compress: If you can’t make it to the pharmacy or you prefer a non-medicated solution, applying a clean, cold, damp washcloth over your closed eyes can provide instant relief.

If none of the above remedies are working for you or you notice that your itchy eyes are persistent, make sure to contact your eye doctor. They’ll be able recommend a treatment option best suited to you so that you can see the world clearly with fresh eyes.