Health Encyclopedia > Symptom Checker

Burns to the Eye

Topic Overview

Picture of the anatomy of the eye Most substances you get in your eyes that make your eyes burn will not cause serious eye problems. The only treatment needed for items such as soaps, shampoos, and perfumes that get in the eyes is to immediately flush the eyes with water. After flushing, the eyes may be slightly painful and irritated, but these symptoms should go away quickly.

See a picture of the eye.

Chemical burns can happen if a solid or liquid chemical or chemical fumes get into the eye. Many substances will not cause damage if they are flushed out of the eye quickly. Acids (such as bleach or battery acid) and alkali substances (such as oven cleansers or fertilizers) can damage the eye. It may take 24 hours after the burn occurs to determine the seriousness of an eye burn. Chemical fumes and vapors can also irritate the eyes.

Burns to the eyelid or eye can cause eye problems. Blasts of hot air or steam can burn the face and eyes. Bursts of flames or flash fires from stoves or explosives can also burn the face and eyes. If you have burns to your eyelids, see the topic Burns.

Eyes that are not protected by a mask or ultraviolet (UV) filtering sunglasses can be burned by exposure to the high-intensity light of a welder's equipment (torch or arc) or to bright sunlight (especially when the sun is reflecting off snow or water). The eyes also may be injured by other bright lights, such as from tanning booths or sunlamps. It may take up to 24 hours for the extent of the eye injury to be known.

After a burn injury to the eye, it is important to watch for signs of an eye infection.

For more information about other types of eye injuries, such as blows to the eye, see the topic Eye Injuries.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

Do you have a heat or chemical burn to the eye?
Immediate first aid for a heat or chemical burn is to flush the eye with water.
Yes
Heat or chemical burn to eye
No
Heat or chemical burn to eye
How old are you?
Less than 4 years
Less than 4 years
4 years or older
4 years or older
Are you male or female?
Male
Male
Female
Female
Have you had any new vision changes?
These could include vision loss, double vision, or new trouble seeing clearly.
Yes
New vision changes
No
New vision changes
Did you have a sudden loss of vision?
A loss of vision means that you cannot see out of the eye or out of some part of the eye. The vision in that area is gone.
Yes
Sudden vision loss
No
Sudden vision loss
Do you still have vision loss?
Yes
Vision loss still present
No
Vision loss still present
Did the vision loss occur within the past day?
Yes
Vision loss occurred in the past day
No
Vision loss occurred in the past day
Have you had double vision?
Yes
Double vision
No
Double vision
Are you seeing double now?
Yes
Double vision now present
No
Double vision now present
Did the double vision occur within the past day?
Yes
Double vision occurred in the past day
No
Double vision occurred in the past day
Are you having trouble seeing?
This means you are having new problems reading ordinary print or seeing things at a distance.
Yes
Decreased vision
No
Decreased vision
Do you have any eye pain?
Yes
Eye pain
No
Eye pain
How bad is the pain on a scale of 0 to 10, if 0 is no pain and 10 is the worst pain you can imagine?
8 to 10: Severe pain
Severe eye pain
5 to 7: Moderate pain
Moderate eye pain
1 to 4: Mild pain
Mild eye pain
Has there been a change in the size or shape of the pupil (the black center of the eye)?
Yes
Pupil changes after injury
No
Pupil changes after injury
Has the surface of the colored part of the eye turned cloudy or white?
This surface or covering (called the cornea) usually is clear.
Yes
Cornea is cloudy or white
No
Cornea is cloudy or white
Does light make your eyes hurt?
Yes
Sensitivity to light
No
Sensitivity to light
Does the light hurt so much that you have trouble opening your eyes?
Yes
Hard to open eyes because of discomfort with light
No
Hard to open eyes because of discomfort with light
Do you think that the injury may have been caused by abuse?
Yes
Injury may have been caused by abuse
No
Injury may have been caused by abuse
Does it feel like there is something in the eye?
This is worse than the eye feeling gritty or a little irritated. This actually may make it hard to keep the eye open.
Yes
Feels like something is in eye
No
Feels like something is in eye
Is it very hard or impossible to open the eye because of the discomfort?
Yes
Hard to open eye because of discomfort with feeling something in eye
No
Hard to open eye because of discomfort with feeling something in eye
Is there any swelling around the eye?
Yes
Swelling around eye
No
Swelling around eye
Is the swelling so severe that you cannot see out of the eye?
Yes
Severe swelling around eye
No
Severe swelling around eye
Do you think the eyelid or the skin around the eye may be infected?
Symptoms could include redness, pus, increasing pain, or a lot of swelling. (A small bump or pimple on the eyelid, called a stye, usually is not a problem.) You might also have a fever.
Yes
Symptoms of infection around eye
No
Symptoms of infection around eye
Do you think you may have a fever?
Yes
Possible fever
No
Possible fever
Do you have diabetes or a weakened immune system?
What weakens the immune system in an adult or older child may be different than in a young child or baby.
Yes
Diabetes or immune problem
No
Diabetes or immune problem
Is there any pus coming from the area around the eye (not from the eye itself)?
Yes
Pus from area around eye
No
Pus from area around eye
Is there any redness in the part of the eye that's usually white?
This does not include a blood spot on the eye.
Yes
Redness in part of eye that's usually white
No
Redness in part of eye that's usually white
Are there blisters on the eyelids?
Yes
Blisters on eyelids
No
Blisters on eyelids
Is there any pus or thick drainage coming from the eye (not from the skin around the eye)?
This does not include water or thin, watery drainage. Pus is thicker and may make the eyelids stick together.
Yes
Pus draining from eye
No
Pus draining from eye
Have you had eye problems for more than 72 hours?
Yes
Eye problems for more than 72 hours
No
Eye problems for more than 72 hours

Flushing the eye with water is the most important first-aid step for a burn to the eye.

You can use any of these methods to flush the eye. Remove contact lenses first, if you can, and then hold your eyelids open while you:

  • Stand under a shower with open eyes.
  • Put your face under a running faucet.
  • Use a kitchen sink sprayer at low pressure.
  • Immerse your face in a sink or pan filled with water.
  • Run water from a garden hose over your eye (do not use the spray nozzle).
  • Pour water from a pitcher or jug over your eye.

Do not use alcohol to flush the eye.

Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:

  • Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
  • Long-term alcohol and drug problems.
  • Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety of conditions.
  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
  • Other medicines used to treat autoimmune disease.
  • Medicines taken after organ transplant.
  • Not having a spleen.

Try Home Treatment

You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.

  • Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
  • Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.

Pain in adults and older children

  • Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
  • Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days. Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it's severe when it's there.
  • Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.

Pain in children under 3 years

It can be hard to tell how much pain a baby or toddler is in.

  • Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the baby cannot sleep, cannot get comfortable, and cries constantly no matter what you do. The baby may kick, make fists, or grimace.
  • Moderate pain (5 to 7): The baby is very fussy, clings to you a lot, and may have trouble sleeping but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
  • Mild pain (1 to 4): The baby is a little fussy and clings to you a little but responds when you try to comfort him or her.

Call 911 Now

Based on your answers, you need emergency care.

Call 911 or other emergency services now.

Flush the eye with cool water until help arrives.

Seek Care Now

Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.

If a chemical got in the eye:

  • Call the local poison control center or the National Poison Control Hotline (1-800-222-1222). The poison control center will tell you exactly what to do.

For any other burns to the eye:

  • Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
  • You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
    • You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
    • You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.

The immediate first aid for chemical or heat burns in the eye area is to flush the eye with cool water for at least 30 minutes.

Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in children are:

  • Diseases such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell disease, and congenital heart disease.
  • Steroid medicines, which are used to treat a variety of conditions.
  • Medicines taken after organ transplant.
  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
  • Not having a spleen.

Seek Care Today

Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.

If a chemical got in the eye:

  • Call the local poison control center or the National Poison Control Hotline (1-800-222-1222). The poison control center will tell you exactly what to do.

For any other burns to the eye:

  • Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
  • If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
  • If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.

The immediate first aid for chemical or heat burns in the eye area is to flush the eye with cool water for at least 30 minutes.

Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:

  • Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
  • Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
  • Medicines you take. Certain medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
  • Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
  • Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.

Home Treatment

Home treatment may relieve your eye symptoms.

Immediately flush the eye with cool water. This is the first step in first aid for a chemical burn or first aid for a heat burn to the eye. Fill a sink or dishpan with water. Put your face in the water, then open and close your eyelids to force water to all parts of your eye.

Eye injury to a child

Applying first aid measures for an eye injury to a child may be difficult depending on the child's age, size, and ability to cooperate. Having another adult help you treat the child is helpful. Stay calm, and talk in a soothing voice. Use slow, gentle movements to help the child remain calm and cooperative. A struggling child may need to be held strongly so that first aid can be started and the seriousness of the eye injury assessed.

Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:

Talk to your child’s doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.

Safety tips
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
  • Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine bottle and box.
  • Do not take more than the recommended dose.
  • Do not take a medicine if you have had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • If you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take it.
  • If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
  • Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Decreased, double, or blurred vision doesn't clear with blinking.
  • Pain increases or continues.
  • Signs of infection develop.
  • Symptoms become more severe or more frequent.

Prevention

The following tips may help prevent burns to the eye:

  • Wear safety glasses, goggles, or face shields when working with power tools or chemicals or when doing any activity that might cause an object or substance to get into your eyes. If you work with hazardous chemicals that could splash into your eyes, be aware of the proper procedure for flushing out chemicals out, and know the location of the nearest shower or sink.
  • Wear a mask or goggles designed for welding if you are welding or near someone else who is welding.
  • Injuries from ultraviolet (UV) light can be prevented by wearing sunglasses that block ultraviolet (UV) rays and by wearing broad-brimmed hats. Be aware that the eye can be injured from glare during boating, sunbathing, and skiing. Use eye protection while under tanning lamps or when using tanning booths. Laser pointers have not been shown to cause eye injury.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

If you have had a burn to the eye that affects your vision, have someone else drive you to your doctor. If you are wearing contact lenses, remove them, and take your glasses with you.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What are your main symptoms? How long have you had your symptoms?
  • What type of substance was splashed into your eye? How and when did it happen? Take the container with you.
  • How and when did the heat (thermal) burn occur?
  • How and when did the ultraviolet (UV) light burn occur?
  • Do you wear glasses or contacts? Did you remove your contact lens? Has the injury affected your vision (as corrected with glasses or contacts)?
  • What kind of vision changes are you having (not related to removing your eye glasses or contact lenses)?
  • What home treatment have you tried? Did you flush your eye with water for 30 minutes as a first aid measure? Did it help?
  • What prescription and nonprescription medicines have you used? Did they help?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised December 23, 2011

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