Foreign Object in the Eye

Remove Objects Yourself or Leave Them for the Professionals?

Woman rubbing eye
DON'T RUB YOUR EYES. Image Source/Photodisc/Getty Images

Most minor eye irritants are going to get flushed out with tears and blinking. I will assume if you are checking on the internet for help to remove something from an eye, it's either not responding to tears and blinking or you know for sure that it's not going to--possibly because it's a knitting needle sticking out of the eyeball.

Rule #1: Don't rub your eyes. Particles in the eye can cause eye abrasions and lead to subconjunctival hemorrhage (big, scary red patch where there should only be white).

When to Seek Help

Treating a foreign object in the eye depends on where the object is and whether or not it's embedded (impaled) in the eyeball or just floating on the surface. Objects impaled in the eyeball require medical care and should be left to the professionals. Of course, you have to get the professionals to the patient (or get the patient to the professionals) so there are a few things you can do to keep an impaled object from doing more damage in the meantime.

For these injuries, read How to Treat an Impaled Object in the Eye.

There are other types of eye irritation that must be referred to the professionals:

  • Bulging or swollen eyeballs
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Sudden loss of vision or sensitivity to light
  • Sores, ulcers or discharge from the eyelid or eye

Assuming we're not talking about serious trauma, a nail, an arrow, or some other pointy object buried in the eyeball, then let's see if we can remove it at home without seeking help.

First, we have to find the object.

Finding the Foreign Object

Often, you can feel something irritating your eye before you know what it is. How (or if) you can remove it yourself depends on what and where it is.

Caution: If you have been working with metal (milling, welding, drilling or other industrial fabrication work), there is a possibility that metal shavings are irritating the eye.

Do not remove metal particles. In that case, take the patient to a medical professional.

Before you get started, wash your hands. Assuming you and the patient are in the same environment, you don't want to introduce even more irritants to the eye as you look around for the ones that are causing the problem.

Pull up a chair and have a seat in a well-lit area. You need plenty of light and a small flashlight might help. If you use a handheld light, don't use a high-powered, turn-night-into-day flashlight like the police carry. It's best if you use a penlight or even your cell phone LED.

Look at the whites of the eyes. This is your best bet for being able to remove the object. Have the patient expose as much of the white area as possible by gently pulling down the lower lid and asking the patient to look up. Repeat in the reverse by lifting the upper lid and having him or her look down. Don't forget to check out the sides by having them look left and right.

If you're very gentle, you can place a cotton swab against the upper lid and roll it up and away from the eyeball to help you find the foreign object.

Sometimes this helps you see things that get stuck on the eyelid itself.

Removing the Foreign Object

Now that you've identified the culprit, you're ready to remove it. Always start with flushing both eyes. Use clean water or saline (eye drops) to try to float the object out. If using eye drops isn't aggressive enough, use more water. An eyewash station at an industrial sight works very well.

If you flush with an eyewash station or with something like a garden hose or a bottle of water, flush both eyes. You don't want to accidentally wash the object from one eye to the other.

Using the trick with the cotton swab and the eyelid, you can hold your eye open so the water or saline can work well.

If flushing doesn't work, gently touch the foreign object with another cotton swab and try to lift it off. This is fine if you found the foreign object on the lid, but be especially careful if you are touching the eye.

After It's Out

It's still going to feel irritated. That feeling should go away by 48 hours or so. If the eye continues to feel irritated or develops worsening pain; or if the patient develops decreased or blurred vision, seek medical help immediately.

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