The other night I took my contact lenses out and went to bed with scratchy, watery eyes. "Tired eyes," I thought. I woke up the next day with a swollen right eyelid, a steady flow of tears from the same eye and a runny nose, but only on the side of my sore eye (#muchconfuse). It hurt to look into light and there was a sharp pain whenever I moved my eyeball — i.e., a lot. It felt like a little person had crawled in under my top eyelid with a pickaxe and was just gently chipping away every few seconds. Good times.
By 9:30 a.m., I couldn't stand it anymore and took myself off to the optometrist. He popped dye in my eye (gross), zoomed in and spotted it — I'd cut my cornea. Not just scratched it, but taken a teeny, tiny, perfectly round chunk out of it (double gross). He told me it could be the beginning of an ulcer (give me strength) but the perfect edges on the chunk meant it was probably a self-inflicted corneal abrasion.
He grabbed my hands and felt my fingernails: "Too sharp," he said. "Make sure you file your nails up and over so you round them off, and when you paint them, round the polish over the edges so it blunts your nails a bit." I was already confused about how I injured my eye — getting manicure tips from my blokey optometrist just made things even more unique. I left with instructions to use lubricating eye drops and an antibiotic eye drop and return in three days. "Should be de-escalating by then," he said. "If not, we'll send you to a specialist."
Not heaps keen on having the whole thing get even worse, I eye-dropped as though my life depended on it. I had a few weak moments where I Google-diagnosed myself with an eye-eating amoeba (they're a real thing, don't ever Google it) but thankfully, in three days it was infinitely better. I went back for my check-up and the eye doctor told me the chunk had healed completely. Quick work cornea, well done.
The thing about corneal abrasions like mine is that they're actually incredibly common. More over, they occur way too easily. I honestly have no idea how I did it (I assume my nail nicked my eyeball while I was removing my contacts in a hurry) but I do know I never, ever want it to happen again. So, I asked eye physician and surgeon Dr. Alina Zeldovich everything I wanted to know about corneal abrasions, and she told me how we can all avoid injuring our precious peepers.
So, Uh, What Is a Corneal Abrasion?
"The cornea is the clear front window of the eye," explains Dr. Zeldovich, "and you can see it if you look side on. It is like the windscreen of the eye and consists of multiple layers and exquisite nerve endings, making it very delicate and sensitive. A corneal abrasion is a scratch in the surface layer due to injury on the cornea." So for me, my abrasion was more like a nick.
How Do They Happen?
Oh, the ways! "People can injury their corneas in many different ways," confirms Dr. Zeldovich. "Most commonly something has brushed along the surface of the eye in between blinks. Examples include fingernail injuries, particularly from small children who are very curious about eyes, mascara brush injuries and false eyelashes."
There's more. Injuries can also be caused during sport, in the workplace (especially when working with building materials), while bushwalking (when branches and plant matter flies into your face) or when playing with toys or sharp objects. In fact, Dr. Zeldovich says she's even seen abrasions caused by swooping magpies! "It is a relatively common presentation to an ophthalmologist," she says.
What Are the Symptoms?
LET ME TELL YOU. You'll have a sharp pain in your eye whenever you move it, it'll be super red, swollen and watery and looking into light will hurt so bad your eye will close involuntarily. "It may or may not cause visual loss, depending on the location of the injury," Dr. Zeldovich adds.
How Do You Treat Them?
With kindness. Kidding. Dr. Zeldovich recommends you see an ophthalmologist, optometrist or your GP as soon as possible. "The treatment and prognosis of a corneal abrasion depends on the size and location of the defect, and whether it becomes infected of not. It also depends on the initial cause of the injury," says Dr. Zeldovich. "Generally corneal abrasions are treated with antibiotic drops to prevent infection and lubricant drops to promote healing. If they are small and not in the central axis of vision, the pain will disappear within a day or two, however it will take longer for the cornea to actually heal properly, so I advise using lubricant drops for a month facilitating healing completion."
How Do We Make Sure It Never, Ever Happens Again?
"Accidents happen, but as a general rule, glasses or sunglasses should be worn to protect the eyes," says Dr. Zeldovich. "This is true for adults and children alike. Safety goggles should be worn in the manual work place and sunglasses should be worn when outdoors, especially when gardening and playing sport." Do it you guys, you'll look cooler and your eyes won't get injured.
Below, Dr. Zeldovich's Shares Her Tips For Contact Lens Wearers:
1. Contact lens wearers have a higher incidence of corneal abrasions, as micro-abrasions commonly occur whilst introducing and removing the lens from the eye.
2. Abrasions are more likely to occur if the eye is dry, because the lens can stick to the cornea.
3. Contact wearers have reduced corneal defences and are more likely to develop an infection as a result of the abrasion.
4. Sleeping or swimming in contacts, and poor cleaning and storage habits, all increase the risk of infection.
5. If an infection occurs, it can progress rapidly and can be sight threatening.
6. Any contact lens wearers with a red, watery and painful eye should present to an ophthalmologist for treatment as soon as possible.