Eye Exposures

Accidental exposures to chemicals, drugs or household products are always frightening. When the exposure involves the eyes, it is especially alarming.

The good news is that most people with ocular (eye) exposures who call the Poison Control Center do well. This does not mean that eye exposures are harmless. The reason most callers don't experience significant damage is proper treatment.

First aid for eye exposures

First aid treatment must be given immediately and is typically the same:

  1. Remove contact lenses immediately. Soft and disposable lenses should be discarded. Check with your eye care professional for the proper procedure for hard and semi-permeable lenses.
  2. Flood the eyes with room-temperature water for at least 15-20 minutes. This can be easily done in the shower with a gentle stream of water; it can also be accomplished by pouring water from a large glass 2-3 inches from the eyes. Don't use an eye cup or eye drops; these are virtually useless.
  3. If a small child is exposed, wrapping him "mummy-style" in a towel and getting the help of another adult makes the job easier. Pouring glasses of water over the affected eye(s) works well for children. In either case, do not force the eyelids open as it is not necessary for successful treatment. A full 15-20 minutes of flushing is required to properly remove the substance from the eyes. Time the treatment by the clock and have the child blink as much as possible while flooding the eyes.
  4. Do not put any type of drops into the eye after the irrigation is complete. The Poison Control Center specialist will follow up after the irrigation is complete with further instructions.

Additional recommendations will depend on the presence or absence of symptoms and the substance involved.

Eye damage versus eye irritation

Most substances that contact the eye result in simple irritation; in these cases rinsing the eye is sufficient to resolve the problem. However, some ocular exposure can progress to a corneal abrasion or burn.

The cornea is a clear, jelly-like membrane covering the eye. If it becomes chemically abraded (scraped or scratched) it can lead to persistent pain, blurred vision, and possibly infection. A person with a corneal abrasion may feel like there is a grain of sand in the eye, even after continuous flushing with water.

It is important to identify serious symptoms and promptly seek medical attention. Failure to recognize these symptoms may result in further damage to the eyes. Always call the Poison Control Center for proper assessment of the situation when an eye exposure is involved.

Development of serious problems after an eye exposure largely depends upon the harmful potential of the substance involved. There are thousands of chemicals, cosmetics, cleaning products, etc. that people could be exposed to.

Common household products that can be dangerous to the eyes

  • Dishwasher (automatic) detergents
  • Drain openers
  • Hair relaxers
  • Hair perm solutions
  • Hair removers
  • Lime
  • Mildew stain removers
  • Oven cleaners
  • Rust removers
  • Toilet bowl cleaners

There is no simple list of "dangerous" versus "harmless" substances, and every potentially harmful product could not be listed here. Always call the Poison Control Center to identify the harmful potential of the substance involved.

Lasting effects of eye exposures

The extent of injury to the eye also depends on the duration of the exposure. Substances that are relatively harmless may cause serious damage if not promptly removed from the eyes using an effective technique.

Next Steps
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