Understanding the risks of rubbing your eyes.

Eyes are our windows to the world and invaluable sensory organs that allow us to perceive the beauty around us. Rubbing our eyes is a common habit that many people indulge in without considering the potential consequences. While it may provide temporary relief and other benefits, optometrists strongly advise against it due to the risks it poses to eye health and vision.

Adele Camarena, owner and director of Camarena Optometrist trading as Spectacle World, says that rubbing your eyes seem like a harmless habit that many of us engage in, but it poses serious risks to our eye health and overall well-being. “Persistent eye rubbing can induce eye strain, manifesting in various discomforting symptoms including dryness, redness, itchiness, and irritation. The continuous friction applied to the eyes disrupts the delicate tear film on the surface, leading to discomfort and potential vision problems. Individuals who spend prolonged hours working on screens or in environments with inadequate lighting conditions are particularly susceptible to this issue.”

She adds that eye rubbing can exacerbate pre-existing eye conditions or contribute to their progression e.g., individuals with allergies, triggered by allergens, often resort to rubbing their eyes to alleviate itching. “Regrettably, this practice can worsen symptoms and, in some cases, lead to conditions such as allergic conjunctivitis or keratoconus. Keratoconus results in corneal thinning and weakening, and can lead to distorted vision and, in severe cases, requiring corneal transplants or specialised contact lenses. Similarly, individuals diagnosed with glaucoma or dry eyes must exercise caution, as eye rubbing may further damage delicate eye structures, complicating their treatment.”

As we all know, our hands harbour germs and bacteria, making it important to avoid introducing these microorganisms to the eyes. “As children we were often exposed to what is known as pink eyes. We were all told to not rub our eyes under any circumstances. Throughout the day, our hands come into contact with numerous surfaces and objects, accumulating bacteria, and dirt particles. Without proper hand hygiene, rubbing the eyes significantly increases the likelihood of introducing these microorganisms into the eye tissues, potentially resulting in eye infections such as conjunctivitis or styes.”

She continues that it is instinct to rub your eyes when there is a foreign object, but this can cause further damage, as the object may scratch the cornea. Instead, it is recommended to flush the eye with saline solution or artificial tears to safely remove the object.

Camarena warns that individuals with certain eye conditions, such as progressive myopia or glaucoma, should refrain from rubbing their eyes, as it can worsen the condition and potentially lead to permanent vision loss. “The increased eye pressure can result in nerve damage and even retinal tears or detachment. Plus, excessive eye rubbing can cause blood vessels to rupture, leading to bloodshot eyes, dark circles, and the development of wrinkles around the eyes. This can have a negative impact on one’s appearance,” she explains.

To reduce the urge to rub your eyes, it is essential to keep your eyes hydrated with artificial tears or eye drops, readily available over the counter. Consultation with an optometrist or ophthalmologist can provide guidance on suitable drops, including antihistamines, mast cell stabilisers, or steroid eye drops, depending on the specific condition.

“Excessive eye rubbing, whether due to dryness, irritation, or habit, should be addressed promptly to prevent potential damage to the eyes and vision. Schedule a visit to Spectacle World to identify the cause of your eye discomfort, receive personalised treatment options, and ensure optimal eye health. While rubbing your eyes can provide temporary relief and stimulate tear flow, it is important to note that excessive rubbing can release histamines, worsening itching and prompting more aggressive rubbing. It’s not all bad news though as rubbing the eyes gently can stimulate the meibomian glands within the eyelids to secrete oil, providing added moisture and protection against tear evaporation,” Camarena concludes.