Doctors Share Why We Shouldn't Rub Our Eyes – And We'll Never Touch Them Again

·5 min read

You’ve come back from work after a long day of having your eyes glued to the screen. You get into bed and offload your stress with a nice gentle eye rub. I love a cheeky eye rub at the end of the day, especially whilst scrolling on my phone.

So you can imagine my horror when I stumbled across a TikTok explaining why we should absolutely not be rubbing our eyes into oblivion (despite how good it feels).

@brianboxerwachlermd

please don’t rub your eyes especially if you have Keratoconus which can make it worse #keratoconus#eyes

♬ Cornfield Chase - Hans Zimmer

To my shock and sadness, if your eyes are itchy, rubbing them only just makes it worse. This is terrible news for me, but how much truth is there in this? Can rubbing our eyes affect our vision?

Dr. Deborah Lee from Dr Fox Pharmacy, unfortunately, tells HuffPost UK that it’s never a good idea to rub your eyes unless absolutely necessary, and here are some reasons why (we’re so sorry).

Risk of infection

You can transfer infection from your fingers into your eyes causing infections such as blepharitis, conjunctivitis, styes, cellulitis, keratitis, and uveitis. Those who wear contact lenses are at risk of corneal inflammation and infection.

A foreign body can damage the eye

If an object has lodged in the eye, such as a small wood chip or piece of metal, when you rub the eye, this can scratch the cornea and embed the object further into the eye.

Small blood vessels may rupture

This can cause bloodshot eyes, or give dark circles under the eyes.

Can worsen pre-existing eye disease 

People who are short-sighted may find rubbing their eyes worsens their vision. For those with glaucoma – raised pressure inside the eye – rubbing the eyeball further increases the pressure in the eye and can damage the optic nerve, resulting in further deterioration of vision.

Corneal irritation 

Continual rubbing of the cornea can cause tiny scratches on the
cornea called corneal abrasions. The eye becomes pink and is sore and sensitive to light.

Worsens allergy symptoms

If you have an allergy, for example to pollen in hay fever – when pollen comes into contact with the eye, this leads to histamine release, and the eyes become red, swollen, and itchy.

Rubbing your eyes results in additional tears being produced which can soothe the itching, but it also leads to more histamine being released which worsens the problem.

Thinning of the cornea

Constantly rubbing the eye can cause thinning of the cornea which can develop a sort of cone-shaped bulge – known as keratoconus –which is associated with loss of vision and sometimes requires a corneal graft.

Dry eyes

You may feel the need to rub your eyes because you have dry eye. This
is a very common condition affecting up to 50% of the population. Your eyes don’t produce enough natural tears.

Your eyes may feel dry, and gritty, and are sensitive to light, as well as watering more than is normal. You need to treat the dry eye with artificial tears, moisturising gels or ointments – rather than constantly rubbing the eye.

Ages the skin around the eyes

Rubbing your eyes leads to thickening of the skin around the eyes, known as lichenification. This can mean the skin around the eyes looks more wrinkled.

Does rubbing your eye affect your vision?

Rubbing the eye disrupts the blood flow in the eye, increases the pressure inside the eye on the retina and optic nerve, and hence can damage the optic nerve, reducing vision. Retinal tears and detachment are more common in those who rub their eyes.

Are there benefits to rubbing your eye?

However it seems that there are a few benefits to rubbing your eye, according to Dr. Fox. “Putting pressure on your eyes is an effective way of relieving stress, as
pressing on the eyeballs stimulates the vagus nerve, the major
parasympathetic nerve of the body,” she explains.

Dr. Fox continues: “Gentle rubbing after applying drops helps distribute the drops and lubricate the eye.”

But if you feel a constant need to rub your eyes, this is a symptom that something is wrong, and you should seek medical help.

So what should we do if feel the urge to rub our eyes? Should we ignore it?

Dr. Fox advises us to clean our eyes with some cotton wool soaked in warm water, to remove any dust or dirt from the eyelids or eyelashes.

“Soak a flannel in warm, clean water. Wring it out so it is damp, and place it over your eye or eyes. Try and relax,” she adds.

“Next, apply some artificial tears or natural lubricant drops to the eye. Try not to rub or scratch the eyes. Wear gloves or mittens if needed.”

When to contact the doctor

  • If the eye is red and painful, or if it’s red and you wear contact lenses, you need an urgent GP/hospital appointment.

  • A sore eye can be an emergency. If you have any of the following, go to A&E or phone 999

  • If you see changes to your vision such as seeing wavy lines

  • A red eye with a headache and feeling sick

  • Pain when you look at the light

  • Your eye or eyes look very dark red

  • You’ve injured your eye or pierced it

  • You have a foreign body in your eye (like a piece of metal, glass or grit)

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