Many people feel the urge to rub their itchy eyes — especially during cold and allergy season. You might also feel tempted to rub your eyes when they’re dry or tired.
You probably remember your mom’s advice to keep your hands away from your eyes — but is it bad to rub your eyes?
In a word, yes. Mom was right — frequent rubbing can make already irritated eyes feel even worse. Plus, you can seriously damage your eyes by rubbing too much.
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What Causes You to Rub Your Eyes?
Rubbing your eyes can be a hard habit to break. You may not always realize you’re doing it. You may rub your eyes for the following reasons.
You have eye allergies
Eye allergies are common. People who have eye allergies usually have nasal allergies too. They happen when the eyes react to allergens (pet dander, dust, smoke) by producing a substance called histamine.
Histamine triggers allergy symptoms, including:
- Red, swollen, itchy, or teary eyes.
- A burning sensation in the eyes.
- Sensitivity to light.
Rubbing your eyes causes an increase in histamine, so it can make symptoms worse.
You have an eye infection or inflammation
The most common type of inflammation in the eye, especially in children, is conjunctivitis (commonly called “pinkeye”). There are many causes, including viruses, bacteria, allergies, and irritants like smoke, shampoo, or other substances. Pinkeye is highly contagious and can cause itchy, irritated, red eyes.
You have blepharitis
Blepharitis is an inflammation of the eyelids. There are many reasons why your eyelids may become inflamed, and symptoms include redness, irritation, and crusting of the eyelashes. Sometimes scales develop on the eyelashes.
Because blepharitis makes the eyes itchy, it can lead to excessive rubbing of the eyes.
You’re experiencing eye strain
If you spend a good portion of your day staring at a computer screen, you may have eye strain. We significantly decrease how often we blink when we focus up close, which causes our eyes to dry out. Your eyes feel sore and tired — and may even burn or itch. Those sensations can make you want to rub your eyes.
What Happens When You Rub Your Eyes
You can seriously damage your eyes by rubbing them. The following conditions can develop from chronic eye-rubbing.
A corneal abrasion is a scratch on the surface of your cornea, the clear, dome-shaped window at the front of your eye. It can come from a scrape with a fingernail or makeup brush, or from ill-fitting contact lenses. You can also scratch your cornea by rubbing your eyes.
Symptoms of a corneal abrasion include:
- Red or watery eyes.
- Eye pain.
- Feeling like there’s something stuck in your eye.
- Blurry vision.
- Unusual sensitivity to light.
If you suspect you have a corneal abrasion, you should see an eye doctor. You might need prescription medicine or a special contact lens to reduce pain and help healing.
Keratoconus is a condition where the cornea changes shape. Sometimes it’s genetic or happens because of connective tissue disorders. But excessive eye rubbing can also cause keratoconus.
If you have keratoconus, you may notice:
- Blurry vision.
- Distorted vision — for example, straight lines may look wavy.
- Increased sensitivity to light.
- Red or swollen eyes.
If you have any of these symptoms, you should see an eye doctor. They can diagnose keratoconus through a routine eye exam.
Treatment may be as simple as long-term use of special eyeglasses or contact lenses. More serious cases may require UV light treatments or eye surgery. The most severe cases may require a corneal transplant.
How to Stop Eye-Rubbing
Rubbing your eyes now and then may seem harmless, but it can become a bad habit. So it’s important to recognize when you’re likely to rub your eyes and make every effort to stop. Here are some steps you can take to soothe your eyes and avoid eye rubbing.
- Talk to your eye doctor about medicine to control your allergy symptoms, including itchy eyes.
- If your eyes feel tired or itchy, over-the-counter eyedrops may help. Cooling the eyedrops in the refrigerator helps them feel even more soothing.
- Use warm compresses to soothe itchy eyelids. (A washcloth soaked in cold water will do the trick.)
- Take frequent breaks from staring at computer and other screens — at least every 20 minutes or so.
- Keep the eye area clean. Don’t use makeup when your eyes are already irritated.
- Find something else to do with your hands (like playing with a stress ball).
- Overall, remember that keeping your hands away from your face will lead to fewer eye problems.
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About UPMC Vision Institute
The UPMC Vision Institute is a national leader in the treatment of eye diseases and disorders. We seek to improve and restore your vision to help your quality of life, diagnosing and treating a wide range of conditions in both children and adults. Our treatments include both surgical and nonsurgical options. We also offer routine eye screenings and have full-scale optical shops. Find an eye expert close to you.