Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2004;70(1):129

What is a corneal abrasion?

The cornea is a thin, clear, protective shield at the front of your eye. It covers the colored part of your eye and your pupil. A corneal abrasion is a scratch on the cornea.

What can cause a corneal abrasion?

Many things can get into your eye and cause a corneal abrasion, including sand, dust, dirt, wood or metal shavings, fingernails, tree branches, and contact lenses. When a corneal abrasion doesn’t heal right, it may get infected. Infections can cause an ulcer of the cornea (this is a kind of sore). In some people, the outer layers of the cornea are weak. These people may get a corneal abrasion for no apparent reason.

How do I know if I have a corneal abrasion?

The cornea is very sensitive, so a corneal abrasion usually hurts. You may feel like you have sand or grit in your eye, and your eye may look red. You might get tears or blurred vision. Light may hurt your eye. Some people get a headache when they have a corneal abrasion.

What do I do if I get something in my eye?

First, try to wash out the eye by splashing clean water into it. Your workplace may have an eye rinse station for this purpose. Sometimes, blinking or pulling the upper eyelid over the lower eyelid will remove the grit from under your eyelid. Try not to rub your eye.

If you can see something on the white part of your eye, use a soft tissue or cotton swab to gently lift it out. Don’t try to take something out that is directly over the cornea. This might cause serious damage. If you can’t get the grit out, or if you can’t see anything in your eye, call your doctor.

What will my doctor do for a corneal abrasion?

Your doctor will check your eye for damage or grit. A dye may be put in your eye to help make a scratch easier to see. The dye goes away in a few minutes, and it may sting a little. Your doctor may treat the abrasion with eye drops or ointment. Most small scratches heal within one to three days. You may need to go back to your doctor for another check-up. Doctors used to tell people with corneal abrasions to wear eye patches. But studies have shown that eye patches don’t help and may even make things worse.

What if I wear contact lenses?

If you wear contact lenses, you have a higher risk of eye infection. You will need closer medical attention. If you get something in your eye, take your contact lenses out right away. If the pain does not go away in a few hours, your doctor will probably refer you to an eye doctor. You should not wear your contacts again until your doctor tells you it’s okay.

How can I prevent a corneal abrasion?

Take the following steps to help prevent corneal abrasions:

  • Wear protective eye goggles when you are around machines that can make bits of wood, metal, or other things fly into the air (such as a chainsaw or a sander).

  • Wear goggles when playing sports.

  • Cut babies’ and young children’s fingernails short.

  • Trim low-hanging tree branches around your home.

  • Use care when putting in your contact lenses.

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