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The risks that come with rubbing your eyes

The risks that come with rubbing your eyes

Itchy eyes are a common problem, occurring in people with allergies, who wear contact lenses, or are lacking in sleep. Prolonged exposure to computer or phone screens may also cause your eyes to become itchy.

If, after reading this blog post, you’re overcome with the temptation to rub your eyes, we’re here to warn you to hold off because chronic eye rubbing can lead to serious ocular damage.

Rubbing your eyes can cause permanent change

Your cornea (the transparent surface that covers the front part of the eye) can become permanently misshapen if rubbed too often. This is bad news: a malformed cornea can lead to keratoconus, an eye condition in which a thin cornea takes on a cone-like shape (a normal cornea is actually quite round). This irregular corneal structure distorts light, leading to poor vision that cannot be corrected with normal glasses or contact lenses.

Scratching the surface

Say you get a piece of dust in your eye. No big deal, right? One simple rub will remove that pesky particle. This is a common misconception: rubbing your eyes can cause that particle to scratch the surface of your 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.

An easy way to get an infection

From your smartphone to doorknobs, your hands encounter many surfaces on a given day, a number of which carry tons of germs. Rubbing your eyes with your hands risks introducing this bacteria into the eye which can cause infections (another way to catch pink eye).

Take note, allergy sufferers

In addition to runny noses and scratchy throats, a symptom of having allergies is itchy, irritated eyes. Allergy sufferers will often rub their eyes to provide 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. By rubbing your eyes, however, the mast cells can be ruptured, thereby releasing large amounts of acid/histamine into your already-sensitive eyes. This causes the itching to intensify.

Eye-rubbing: not a good look

Rubbing your eyes can have a physical effect, too. You can develop dark circles under the lower eyelids, as the skin underneath our eyes is very thin, and rubbing can thin it further. This is because the rough gesture of rubbing your eyes can cause tiny blood vessels around the eyes to break and burst, making them more visible and leading to a darker appearance. Sometimes, eye rubbing will make already-bloodshot red eyes look even worse.

A rub-free remedy

No matter the reason, itchy eyes can be a real bother. The good news? There are ways this condition can be treated.

Lubricating eye drops, like the ones found over the counter at the pharmacy, are a reliable method to treat itchy eyes. Keeping them in the fridge prior to usage makes them more helpful, as colder drops can really soothe. Just make sure to read the label of your drops to make sure that can be stored in the fridge.

Another solution? A simple sterile saline eyewash to flush out particles and to provide a cooling, soothing effect.

If the ones available at your local drugstore don’t work, your eye doctor can also prescribe specialized eye drops or oral medication.

If allergies are what ails you, your doctor can prescribe anti-allergy eye drops to help you out. Similarly, some over-the-counter medicines may provide some temporary relief (up to 24 hours’ worth).

Can’t make it to the pharmacy? A quick fix in the absence of eye drops or medication is to apply a cold, damp washcloth over your closed eyes – just make sure that the washcloth is clean. This should provide instant relief.

Do this instead of eye-rubbing

Still feel like touching your irritated eye? We didn’t think so. But if you notice that the problem is persistent, 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.