Chemical Eye Burns: How to Treat Acid Injuries to the Eye

Chemical Eye Burns How to Treat Acid Injuries to the Eye

Chemical eye injury is a relatively rare worksite injury thanks to protective eye gear and face shields that are standard issue in labs and many industrial job sites. Still, most injuries from chemical burn in the eye happen at work where there are eye wash stations and other first aid equipment nearby.

But what if it happens at home, where cleaning solutions, bug spray, cosmetics, and other products laden with chemicals are lurking, and where eyegear isn’t available or used? Here are tips on treating so-called “acid eye.”

Do Not Rub an Acid Eye, Wash It Under Running Water

If something gets in your eye–liquid, powder, or something else–it’s important to resist rubbing it. Whatever got in your eye can easily scratch the cornea and cause a serious injury. And if it’s a chemical, rubbing it in can worsen pain and damage.

Don’t wait for someone to bring saline. As soon as possible, get the injured eye under clean running lukewarm water for 15 – 20 minutes, even if there are no symptoms like stinging or burning. An alkali chemical eye injury, for example, doesn’t always trigger alarming symptoms or pain but are among the most dangerous injuries. 

If possible, get the person in a shower where water flow is continuous. Don’t stop to remove clothing–just get in there and turn on the showerhead. 

You need to flush the eyes to get the substance out and reduce the pH level caused by a chemical in the eye to normal. Flushing can also alleviate the initial symptoms as well, such as stinging or burning eyes, swelling in the eyelids, and redness. 

Here are four steps to keep in mind when someone may have a chemical burn in an eye:

  1. Keep the eye(s) open wide for as long as possible. If possible, put on sterile gloves.
  2. Get contact lenses out as soon as possible.
  3. The longer an injured eye is flushed, the more likely it will remove the chemical agent.
  4. Do not put a bandage or towel over the eye after flushing is completed.

Get Trained Medical Help As Soon As Possible

If you know there are chemicals in the area that could have entered the eye, call for medical help right away.

The only exceptions are splashes from nontoxic soaps and shampoos, which can be safely flushed out with water. The same goes for pepper spray, which is painful but ultimately harmless and can be flushed out.

Even if the injured person has already flushed the eye, an emergency responder will probably repeat this step with saline, particularly if the substance was powder which is more difficult to remove from the eye. 

Once in a medical facility, there will be a complete eye exam to determine the amount of damage. For example, there may be a chemical burn under the eye where the skin is very sensitive and will need treatment, as well as evaluating the extent of damage to the eye itself. Expect a second exam the following day when injuries are more apparent to diagnose. An ophthalmologist may also apply eye drops with dye that show dead or damaged eye tissue. 

Get Trained Medical Help As Soon As Possible

Chemicals that Cause Blindness

Chemical pH levels are usually zero to 14. The higher the pH, the more damage that can be done, particularly burn damage. 

Alkaline chemicals have a pH over 7 and are the most damaging. These are chemicals that can cause blindness with repeated or prolonged exposure. Surgery may be needed to repair the damage they can cause to the eye surface or eyelids.

These are chemicals found in lye (sodium hydroxide) and are in some household products that contain lye like oven and drain cleaners. They can easily splash or get sprayed into unprotected eyes; even their vapor or odor can cause considerable discomfort.

Use Lots of Eye Drops

Follow-up treatment for any eye injury will almost certainly include prescription eye drops and oral medications to control pain or prevent further infection.

Patients will be given at least one prescription eye drops and probably more. If you’ve never used or applied eyedrops to another person, you will quickly become something of an expert. 

  • Anesthetic eye drops are used to control pain, particularly if follow-up care includes eye washing. 
  • Drops may be prescribed to dilate the eye, which provides more comfort but may cause some light sensitivity, so keep lights low or wear sunglasses. 
  • Antibiotic eye drops and oral medication will heal or prevent infection. 
  • Lubricating eye drops will keep the eyelid from sticking to the cornea during healing.
  • Steroid eye drops are prescribed for serious chemical burns to reduce inflammation, speed up healing, prevent further infection and possibly prevent glaucoma and blindness. 
  • Glaucoma eye drops may be necessary if eye pressure is too high.

Take all precautions seriously. Don’t drive if you’re wearing an eyepatch because your vision can fluctuate during treatment. 

Be sure to go to all follow-up appointments and contact the treating physician if there is sudden eye pain (or an increase in eye pain), blurry vision, or unexplained light sensitivity.

Use Lots of Eye Drops

Not All Chemical Burns Are Alike 

Alkali burns come from chemicals with higher pH, are highly corrosive, and are the most dangerous to the eyes. In addition to lye products, they are also found in lime used in plaster and cement and in ammonia cleaners. It’s another reason why eye protection is recommended for DIY-ers and even for deep-down household cleaning.

Household batteries contain alkaline. Most companies have strengthened batteries to not leak under normal conditions, but if they do leak, they should be carefully disposed. Make sure to wash your hands afterward to prevent rubbing alkaline in your eyes or on skin.

Acids are less damaging to the eyes because they generally only affect the cornea and can be flushed out. The exception is hydrofluoric acid, which is as dangerous as alkali. It’s found in industrial-strength cleaning products and some home rust removers.

Car battery acid in the eye is one of the more common acid-to-eye injuries. Most batteries have sulfuric acid, which can damage the cornea and if not promptly treated, lead to blindness. 

Most household products chemicals have lower pH levels — under seven or so — and don’t penetrate the eye as deeply as alkali products. It’s still a good idea to keep them out of your eyes because they will hurt.

Many people today clean with vinegar. A splash of vinegar in the eye can deliver anywhere from 5% to 20% of acetic acid, the same ingredient in aspirin. Flush the eye with water right away. If there is pain, including stinging or burning, or blurred vision, get medical care.

Salicylic acid in the eye is found in specialty facial cleansers, exfoliators, and acne treatments. Dermatologists recommend using over the counter products with 2% or less salicylic acid, not quite neutral but close.

Salicylic acid in higher concentrations is in household cleaners. If it gets in an eye, flush it with water for several minutes. Get medical care; the impact may be minor but a professional flush with saline can save you from a lot of pain and possible damage to the cornea.

If liquid chemicals have been spilled, clean them up right away! SpillFix soaks them up faster and more safely than any other product on the market. Made with 100% natural ingredients, it also leaves behind a clean, dry surface.