Why Rubbing Your Eyes Can Be Harmful

Rubbing the eyes is a common reaction to being tired, having itchy or dry eyes, or a sensation of foreign matter in the eyes. If you find yourself rubbing your eyes frequently, you should seriously consider stopping this habit. While rubbing your eyes might seem like an inherent human trait (after all, babies do it), it can have negative repercussions, especially if you do so often, too vigorously, or have a pre-existing vision problem.

Potential Consequences

  1.      Rubbing your eyes can cause tiny blood vessels to break, resulting in bloodshot eyes and dark unsightly circles under the eyes. Once dark circles appear, it is difficult to get rid of them without surgery. Less commonly, chronic eye rubbing can lead to laxity of the eyelid (a loss of elasticity over time).
  2.     Hands are major germ carriers, and in fact, they carry more germs than any other part of the body. When you rub your eyes, germs are easily transferred and can result in eye infections such as conjunctivitis. Washing your hands thoroughly before rubbing your eyes still increases the risk of eye infections.
  3.     If you feel a speck of dirt or an eyelash in your eye, it is tempting to rub your eyes to remove it. Rubbing even a small speck against your cornea (front part of the eye) can easily scratch it. A corneal scratch will produce more aggravating, longer lasting pain than even the most annoying dust particle.
  4.     If you have allergies and your eyes itch, rubbing your eyes can release more histamines (allergens) into the area around your eyes, thereby increasing itchiness.
  5.     If you have certain pre-existing eye conditions such as progressive myopia (a type of nearsightedness), rubbing your eyes can cause further damage to your eyesight. Even worse, if you have glaucoma, rubbing your eyes can cause a spike in ocular pressure, disrupt blood flow to the back of the eye, lead to nerve damage, and may cause permanent loss of vision.
  6.     Studies have shown continuous eye rubbing in susceptible individuals can lead to thinning of the cornea and a serious eye condition called keratoconus. This is a structural abnormality of the cornea that causes irregular astigmatism. In its severe stages, this often cannot be corrected by glasses or contact lenses and may necessitate a corneal graft.
  7.     If you have punctal plugs inserted in your tear ducts for dry eye, rubbing your eyes too vigorously can dislodge them.

Are You Rubbing Your Eyes Too Hard?

The amount of pressure needed to wash your face with a washcloth gently or dry with a towel is the appropriate amount of pressure to put on your eyes. Anything harder than that can likely negatively impact eye health. If you rub your eyes too hard, this can actually induce a sensation of light or the perception of light without actually seeing light. The little sparks that occur with the eyes closed are called photopsia and can be either benign or a sign of several different conditions.

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Preventive Tips

  •    In most cases, tears will eliminate dirt, sand, or loose eyelashes from your eyes. If not, flush your eyes with lukewarm water or use over-the-counter eye drops (antihistamine or lubricating).
  •    Place a cold compress over your eyes if they itch, are swollen or red. Use a soft clean washcloth or towel, soak it in cool tap water and wring it out. Close your eyes, lean your head back, place the compress on your face, and remove after about 20 minutes.
  •    If you are experiencing allergies, do not use eye makeup because this could increase redness, itchiness and the likelihood of rubbing your eyes.
  •    Wear an eye mask at night to help eliminate dark circles caused by rubbing.

If none of these preventive tips help, schedule an appointment with an eye doctor to diagnosis or rule out other potential underlying reasons for chronic eye rubbing.