Fourth in a four-part series on eye problems.

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

I get a lot of specks of dirt, metal, rust, and other debris out of people’s eyes. Protective goggles keep out most foreign bodies, but it takes just the tiniest speck to make your eye all irritated and water like you’ve got a tree limb in it. Often the speck’s so small I need a magnifying glass—even a special microscope called a slit lamp—to see it. Sometimes the speck is already out and the person is feeling the scratch it left behind. Many find it hard to believe me when I tell them it’s the teeny scratch and not the speck that’s causing all that discomfort.

If a larger object hits the eye hard or anything appears to have punctured the eye surface, I refer the person immediately to an eye specialist. You should leave it alone. Don’t do anything until you can get to a doctor.

But, if it’s that tiny speck and you’re in a disaster situation where you can’t get to a doctor, here’s how to get something out of your eye:

  1. First you can try washing the eye out with clean water. Wash it well with some mild pressure like you’d use to wash out a cut. Maybe put it under the faucet if there’s one available. Pull down the lower lid and pull up the upper lid and squirt all around.
  2. Have someone examine your eye thoroughly. (If no one’s around, you’re going to need a mirror.) It’s pretty easy to see something on the white part. Something on the cornea (the clear covering over the colored part) can be harder to see. Have the person look directly and sideways through your cornea. If they have a light, have them shine it at various angles.
  3. Still shot of the video "How to Get Something Out of Your Eye."You haven’t finished the exam until someone has flipped your upper lid (turned it inside out). It’s a common spot to for the specks to hide. I show you how to do this in my video.
  4. Lastly, shine the light at different angles to look for a scratch or a little gray spot, which would be an ulcer. Both feel the same as a something in your eye. But some of these are impossible to see without fluorescein eye drops or strips. The yellow fluorescein concentrates in corneal scratches and ulcers. If you have a black light, the injured spot will light up like a Christmas tree.

If you locate something in your eye, to get it out:

  1. Take a moistened cloth or cotton swab and dab it on the speck. It should come right out. You’ll see it on the swab or cloth, if the cloth is white.
  2. If it’s on the cornea, make sure you’re gentle and quick. The cornea is extremely sensitive, and your blink reflex will be working overtime. Be sure not to brush across the cornea since you can easily scratch it. If it doesn’t come out easily you’re going to need to wait and see a health-care professional who has numbing drops and something like a sterile needle or other instrument.

If you think it’s a scratch or ulcer, or your eye still bothers you despite getting something out, you’re just going to have to use antibiotic ointment and wait to see a doctor with the proper tools and expertise for diagnosis and treatment. Many scratches and ulcers will go away on their own, but some get worse. Don’t take the chance if you can get medical help.

This won’t make it heal any faster, but if your eye is driving you crazy, wear a patch. Double up some gauze, and tape it down to keep your eye shut completely. Your eye’ll get irritated less if it’s not blinking. Remember, no one can judge distances correctly with only one eye.

Wear sun shades outside. If one eye dilates or constricts due to light changes, both do. Even if the injured eye is patched, the good one will be sensitive to the sunlight.

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