The Full Story
Try to guess what these things have in common: pepper spray, hemorrhoid ointment, instant glue, ear drops, and rust remover.
All of them have found their way into people's eyes! Pepper spray is a riot control agent, but is sometimes found at home. Lots of people mistake instant glue for eye drops and glue their eyelids together. Others mistake their ear drops for eye drops. Or mistake contact lens cleaner for wetting solution - ouch! Rust remover is found at home and at work. The hemorrhoid ointment? To reduce wrinkles and puffiness around the eyes, some women put hemorrhoid medicine on their eyelids.
Whatever it is - if it doesn't belong in your eyes, it will probably hurt. Sometimes there's only a little irritation. But severe damage, even blindness can result. It depends on the exact substance, how much gets into your eye, and how long it stays there. (That's why it's important to rinse your eyes right away.)
The type of injury depends on the type of chemical. For example:
- Pepper spray contains capsaicin, which is the chemical that makes hot peppers hot. Other riot control agents are intended to be irritating. If the exposure is short, and if it's rinsed out quickly, irritation will be minimal. With treatment, redness and irritation should go away in a day or so. A longer exposure to the chemical might mean more irritation and a longer recovery time.
- Instant glue can do a few things to the eye. Of course, it can glue lashes together. Sometimes, as this glue "sets" or "cures", it generates some heat; that can be uncomfortable. Also, the hardened glue can be ragged and cause some scratching. The urge is to somehow cut the lashes apart, but that's not a good idea. The glue will come apart - and you certainly don't want to point sharp objects at the eyeball! Treatment with oil-soaked eye patches will loosen the glue in a couple of days.
- Ear drops can cause irritation in the eyes but probably won't do anything worse than that.
- Contact lens cleaners contain detergents. After all, these products need to dissolve proteins and other deposits on the lenses. In the eye, contact lens cleaners can cause irritation and even corneal abrasions. These are painful injuries that can take a few days to heal.
- Many household chemicals can injure the eye. Rust remover is a special case; it can actually penetrate the eye and cause damage from the inside.
It is SO important to read labels!
- Use products for their intended purpose. Just one example: hemorrhoid ointment is not a treatment for wrinkles on your face!
- If you need glasses, it can be hard to read labels on your eye care products. Figure out a system that works for you. Are the bottles different shapes or sizes? Are the labels different colors, or can they be?
- Be aware of look-alikes: eye drops look like ear drops. Ear drops look like instant glue. Keep your medicines in one place, away from other products.
- Be careful of your eyes when using products at home or work. The label might call for eye protection or ventilation.
If you get anything in your eyes, rinse right away with lots of running water. Any comfortable temperature is OK. Jump in the shower or pour water from a faucet. Continue for at least 15 - 20 minutes. Read these detailed irrigation instructions.
Then, call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 or use the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool to find out exactly what to do next. Sometimes, you can stay home; Poison Control will call you from time to time to check on you. If you need to go to the emergency room, Poison Control will call ahead to so the doctor will know how to treat you.
- If it doesn't belong in your eye, it will probably hurt if it gets into your eye. Probably, it will hurt a lot. Irritation, injury, even blindness can result.
- People get things into their eyes by failing to read labels, using products the wrong way, or by not using protective equipment when it's needed.
- Rinsing your eyes right away is very important if you get something into them.
Rose Ann Gould Soloway, RN, BSN, MSEd, DABAT emerita
Morgan SJ, Astbury NJ. Inadvertent self administration of superglue: a consumer hazard. BMJ. 1984;289:226-227.
Polomsky M, Smereck J. Unilateral mydriasis due to hemorrhoidal ointment. J Emerg Med. 2012:3(1);e11-e15.
Spector J, Gernandez WG. Chemical, thermal, and biological ocular exposures. Emerg Med Clin N Am. 2008:26;125-136.
- Read the label! Lots of things look alike. For example, eye drops, ear drops, and super glue come in similar containers.
- Use products ONLY for their intended purpose.
This Really Happened
Case 1: A woman needed to use eye drops after her cataract surgery. Instead, she used super glue (which was stored right next to her eye drops…). Her eyelids were completely glued shut and she was in pain. She required treatment in an emergency room.
Case 2: A 47-year-old man thought he was using eye drops. Instead, he put clear glue into his eyes. His eyes started hurting and watering immediately. In the emergency room, doctors put an antibiotic ointment in his eye and put a patch on. The next day, doctors removed a hard piece of glue from inside his lower eyelid. He had a large corneal injury which healed over the next several days.
Case 3: A 23-year-old man worked for a company that power-washes and stains outdoor decks. The hose separated from the power washer and the patient was splashed in the eyes with a deck cleaner containing a high percentage of sodium hydroxide. He was not wearing eye protection. The patient developed cloudy vision within 20 seconds even though the eye was not especially painful. The patient's coworkers helped him irrigate the eye with water and then brought him to the emergency room. A very severe burn developed and the patient required a corneal transplant.