Chemical Eye Injuries

Chemical eye injuries with corneal epithelial defects and ischemia of the limbal area.© 2019 American Academy of Ophthalmology

Chemical Eye Injuries



The human eye and all its tissues, as well as the tears that keep it moist are all at a certain neutral chemical level, not excessively acidic or basic. If you think back to chemistry class, you may remember that there is a scale called the pH scale that measures substances from acidic to basic.

There are a lot of natural acidic liquids that we deal with every day. Citrus fruits and other fruits and their juices are all slightly acidic, as is vinegar. But other chemicals that are used in cleaning are much more acidic, like bleach (hydrochloric acid).

There are fewer chemicals on the base side in the home, usually found in cleaning products, such as ammonia, and commercial drain cleaner which containing lye.

If any of these chemicals get into the eye, they cause a chemical eye injuries and corneal burns. How serious the burn is depends on the type of chemical, how much gets in the eye, and how quickly the burn is treated. The cornea, which is the clear part of the eye at the very front, always gets burned if strong chemicals get in the eye.

If not treated properly, acid corneal burns can lead to permanent corneal scarring. Alkali (bases) can actually get through the cornea and into the inside of the eye, raising the pressure inside the eye and doing much more damage. If you or someone else gets a chemical into their eye or eyes, the first thing to do is try and wash out as much as possible.



If you are helping, have the person put his or her head over a sink, with the affected eye down and the head turned to the side. Flush the eye by running cool water over it. You may have to hold the lids open. You should continue this for 15 minutes. If the chemical got into both eyes, this might be done better in the shower.

If there is saline (salt water) available, for example if the person wears contact lenses, you can use it to flush the eye. However, it is unlikely that you would have enough salt water to flush the eye long enough.

After you have done this, the person should be taken to an emergency room. There, medical personnel will continue to flush the eye with the proper fluid until they can tell that there is not acid or base in the eye with what is called pH paper, which you might remember from chemistry.

The doctor will then check to see how much damage to the cornea and the rest of the eye has occurred. If there is evidence of a significant chemical eye injuries, the person will need to be treated by an ophthalmologist.



Acid burns of the cornea usually heal. Burns with bases may not heal as easily, and more prolonged medical care is often needed, which can include medications and surgery. In serious cases of chemical eye injuries, ongoing care by an ophthalmologist will be necessary. With a severe alkali burn, vision can be permanently lost.

It is also possible that other parts of the eye, like the eyelids, can be damaged by an extremely caustic chemical. Other parts of the face may also be burned.

The best way to prevent chemical eye injuries is to be very careful with household chemicals. Keep all cleaning supplies away from children, and exercise great care when pouring or using them. Never mix household cleaners.

If you clean houses or offices for a living, make sure you know exactly what is in the products you use and what to do if some gets in your eye.

If you work with chemicals in a laboratory or other setting and to prevent eye injuries at work wear protective goggles. There should be an eyewash station in the room where you work. This may also be a spot where you can shower to remove chemicals from anywhere on your body if necessary. There should be directions and you should know how to use this emergency station.

While these burns may be treatable, they are extremely painful and dangerous to vision. The best thing in this situation is to know enough not to get a chemical eye burn.




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