As well as being incredibly painful, any injury or damage to the eye may affect your sight.
Dr Susan Blakeney, optometric adviser to the College of Optometrists, warns: “Eye injuries can really hurt, and the eye is vulnerable because the cornea (the transparent layer protecting the eye) is only 1/2mm thick.”
“My first bit of advice,” she says, “is to think about what you’re about to do. Ask yourself, ‘what are the risks?'"
Here are ways that accidents can happen, with tips from Dr Blakeney on guarding against injury.
Eye safety at home
In the garden
“Injuring yourself in the garden is quite common,” says Dr Blakeney. “I recently saw a lady with a severe corneal lesion (damage to the cornea). It happened when she was poked in the eye with a garden cane." Other threats include:
- branches: beware of twigs and branches at eye level
- soil: keep loose particles away from the face
- pond water: water (and soil) can contain a nasty bug called acanthamoeba, which causes corneal ulcers
Any kind of glasses, including sunglasses, are an easy way of protecting your eyes in the garden. Dr Blakeney says that even in the winter (when we may not be wearing sunglasses) it's important to protect our eyes.
In the sun
"Looking at the sun, which is tempting during a solar eclipse, can cause solar retinopathy (sun damage)," says Dr Blakeney. "Very strong radiation can cause permanent damage to the back of the eye, like a scar or a burn."Always avoid looking directly at the sun.
On a sunny day, it's vital to protect your eyes against the sun. The College of Optometrists recommends buying good quality, dark sunglasses (these needn’t be expensive). Look for glasses carrying the 'CE' mark, and the British Standard BS EN 1836:2005, which ensures that the sunglasses offer a safe level of ultraviolet protection.
Chemical burns are another cause of eye problems. Chemicals used at home include weedkiller, plant sprays, caustic soda, bleach or any other household substance. Dr Blakeney points out that alkaline substances cause more damage than acids because they penetrate the eye faster.
In the event of a chemical splash, Dr Blakeney says you must wash the chemical out of your eye as quickly and thoroughly as possible, using lots of fluid. She recommends using:
- eye wash: this is ideal to have in your first aid kit
- contact lens rinsing solution: borrow some from a friend if you don’t use contact lenses
- water from the cold mains (kitchen) tap: let the tap run for a few seconds so that the water is fresh
Many eye injuries are caused by DIY accidents. “Angle grinding is a real risk since it causes tiny, hot metal filings to shoot out,” says Dr Blakeney. “It's particularly important to avoid getting iron particles in your eyes, as there's a risk of a condition called siderosis bulbi, which can affect vision.”
Dr Blakeney’s advice is to wear proper safety glasses, which must:
- be impact-resistant
- adhere to relevant British standards
- fit properly
- fit over your glasses (if worn)
Being struck by a moving object is another cause of eye accidents. There's a high risk of this while playing sport, and Dr Blakeney says squash balls are particularly dangerous. “They're a similar size to your eyeball and could dislodge the eye from its socket. There's also a risk of being caught in the eye by your opponent’s racquet,” she says. It's recommended that you wear sports safety glasses while playing.
When swimming, Dr Blakeney stresses that you must "never wear your contact lenses". Wear goggles to protect your eyes if they're sensitive. Prescription goggles are available if you wear glasses and swim regularly.
Wearing protective glasses for cycling is also recommended to avoid injury from road chippings or prevent flies and dust from getting in your eyes, which could cause an accident.
Eye safety at work
Employers are required by law to protect their employees from risk of injury. You can visit the Health and Safety Executive website for more information.
Dr Blakeney says that computers are a common cause of problems in her patients. While they won’t cause lasting damage to the eyes, working for long periods of time on the computer can strain them or make the symptoms of existing eye conditions worse. Symptoms include eye discomfort, headaches, itchy eyes and difficulty in focusing.
Rest the eyes while working on the computer. Look regularly at more distant objects. For example, stare out of the window during your thinking time. Take frequent breaks from computer work. Visit the optometrist regularly for eye check-ups, and make sure they know you use computers often.
Ensure that you're working in well-lit conditions but without light reflecting off the computer screen as this can cause eye strain or headaches.
Outdoor and manual jobs
Ask your employer which activities require protective goggles. This will make them aware of the risks you face. Again, beware when using machinery, such as angle grinders and drills (see ‘Practising DIY’ above), and chemicals, which can cause nasty burns (see ‘Using chemicals’ above).
The advice for driving is simple: make sure you can see the number plates of the cars around you (DVLA guidelines say you must be able to read them from 20 metres away), and make sure that you have regular eye examinations. Dr Blakeney says: “If you wear glasses and drive at night, ask your optometrist for glasses with an anti-reflection coating. This reduces the reflections from the front and back of the spectacle lenses. They look nicer and reduce glare, which helps you to stay safe.”