A foreign object in the eye can be anything from a piece of dust to a lodged pencil. Most of the time, foreign objects are harmless and easy to remove.
Foreign objects and debris in the eye usually affect the cornea or conjunctiva. The cornea is a transparent layer that protects the iris and pupil. The conjunctiva is the thin layer covering the inner part of the eyelid and the white part of the eye.
In this article, learn how to get an object out of the eye, as well as when to seek medical help.
Most of the time, a person can easily remove debris from the eye. It is possible, however, to scratch a cornea while attempting to get an object out.
A scratched cornea can take several days to heal and may even require treatment. Therefore, it is vital to be careful and ask for help if necessary.
At first, people should try repeatedly blinking to get the debris out. If blinking does not help, they can try following these instructions:
- Wash hands thoroughly with soap and clean water. Pat them dry to avoid spreading bacteria that could cause an eye infection.
- Use a mirror to try to locate the object. The best way to do this is by looking up and down, then left and right.
- Immerse the affected eye in a shallow container of sterile saline solution. Water is also suitable if saline is unavailable. While the eye is in the water, blink several times to flush out the foreign object. If the object remains stuck, gently pull the upper lid away from the eyeball to release it. Alternatively, running artificial tears, saline, or tap water over the eye while it is open may also flush debris away.
- Once the object is no longer in the eye, use a clean cotton swab to wipe and dry the skin around the eye gently.
Take care when removing eye debris by:
- avoiding rubbing the eyes
- taking out any contact lenses before trying to remove the debris
- avoiding the use of sharp objects, such as tweezers
- seeking medical attention if the object is large
Before treatment, a doctor will examine the eye. This examination will include:
- anesthesia to numb the surface of the eye
- eye drops to reveal debris or cuts on the surface of the eye
- a magnifier to locate any foreign objects
- imaging studies to investigate how far into the eye large objects are lodging
A doctor will remove any debris by flushing it out with sterile saline or using a cotton swab. If the doctor is unable to remove the object initially, they may need to use specialized instruments or a needle.
A person may need to take antibiotic eye drops to treat corneal scrapes and protect against eye infections. Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, can reduce any pain.
Serious injury is rare
A foreign object penetrating the eye is rare and accounts for only 2 out of every 1,000 emergency room visits in the United States. Many of these incidents are due to work-related accidents.
One case study reported on the treatment of a 6-year-old boy who fell on a pencil that penetrated his right eye.
Doctors gave the child a general anesthetic and removed the pencil slowly from the eye. Imaging after the surgery showed no eye or brain damage. After removal, the child’s condition improved significantly, and full vision returned.
However, another case report of a 30-year-old man found that, after a plant penetrated his eye in a motorcycle accident, his vision did not recover fully. The vision loss was due to an optic nerve injury.
The authors emphasized that the likelihood of permanent injury from foreign objects in the eye varies greatly depending on the location and material of the object.
The most common foreign objects that end up in the eye include:
- dry mucus
- dirt and sand
- lost contact lenses
- metal or glass particles
Dirt, sand, and dust usually enter the eye because of the wind, while metal or glass in the eye usually occurs when people have an accident while working with certain tools or materials.
Any foreign object that enters the eye at an accelerated speed poses a high risk for eye injury.
Having something stuck in the eye may be a mild nuisance or can be very painful. Anyone who experiences severe eye pain or vision changes should see a doctor immediately.
If an object enters the eye at high speed or is large enough to be visible, a trip to the emergency room might be necessary.
A foreign object in the eye can cause the following symptoms:
- pressure or discomfort
- burning or irritation
- a watery, red eye
- itching with blinking
- blurred vision in the affected eye
- light sensitivity
An object may also cause a subconjunctival hemorrhage, or bleeding in the white part of the eye.
This condition generally does not require medical treatment and resolves on its own within 2–3 weeks, but it is best to see a doctor so that they can rule out any other eye injury.
Most of the time, it is possible to remove a foreign object from the eye at home. However, it is a good idea to see an eye doctor if:
- moderate or severe pain follows object removal
- vision changes occur
- the eye is bleeding or a watery discharge is leaking out
- glass or a chemical is in the eye
- the object was sharp or rough
- the object entered the eye at high speed
Accidents happen, so it is not always possible to avoid getting foreign objects in the eye during everyday activities.
Certain jobs and activities can put the eyes at risk and allow debris to fly into them. In such cases, using protective eyewear can help prevent injuries.
It is best to wear protective eye gear when:
- working in dusty or windy areas
- playing some sports, such as squash
- working with dangerous and toxic chemicals
- using a lawn mower or hedge trimmers
The outlook following the removal of a foreign object from the eye is generally good. Even if the object caused abrasions, the eye should usually heal within a few days.
Anything sharp, such as metal or glass pieces, or objects that entered the eye at high speed may cause more serious injuries or lead to vision problems.
If symptoms continue after removal, or if it is not possible to remove the object safely at home, a person should seek medical attention.