The Hidden Perils of Eye Rubbing

Written by Dr. David Evans   Last modified on December 14, 2018

How often do you rub your eyes? It’s a perfectly natural thing that we all find ourselves doing from time to time. Whether you’re tired from an early morning rise, have an itch you need to scratch or are experiencing fatigue related to digital eye strain, rubbing your eyes can often provide the short-term relief you crave. But at what cost?

Generally speaking, eye rubbing isn’t always a negative. Rubbing the eyes can stimulate tear production which can lubricate and offer relief for dry, itchy eyes. The pressure that rubbing puts on the eyes can also stimulate the vagus nerve, which lowers your heartrate and helps to relieve stress. Thus the satisfied feeling from rubbing your eyes. However, if you make it a frequent habit, or are a little over-aggressive with the pressure against the eye, you could cause permanent damage to your eyes.

tired woman with glasses rubbing her eyes on sofa

Superficial Damage

Dark circles around your eyes or constant bloodshot eyes are sometimes a reaction to eye rubbing. This is because the tiny blood vessels of the eye can be damaged from excessive rubbing. Vessel breakage can have cosmetic consequences in and around the eyes. Have you ever had a strand of blood vessels in the white (sclera) of your eye seemingly appear out of nowhere? This is called a subconjunctival hemorrhage and can result from the increased eye pressure associated with frequent eye rubbing.

Damage to the Cornea

Although the superficial damage caused by rubbing can be a bit of a literal eye sore, the bigger concern is damage to the health of the eye and vision. Chronic eye rubbing can alter the shape of the cornea and lead to conditions like keratoconus which cause vision distortion. This sort of damage would certainly be an extreme reaction to eye rubbing, but the cornea can also be damaged by the abrasive nature of rubbing.

If you’ve got a bothersome eyelash stuck on your cornea, or even something as small as a speck of dust causing an itch, rubbing can cause it to scratch the cornea, leading to a rather painful corneal abrasion. Although scratches are typically considered to be a minor injury, a corneal scratch can lead to pink eye and extreme light sensitivity.

An Infectious Touch

Speaking of pink eye, corneal abrasions aren’t the only way that rubbing your eyes could lead to you developing this nasty eye infection. Unless you make it a habit of washing your hands before rubbing your eyes, you’re risking the transfer of bacteria you might have picked up from opening a door, or shaking hands. The same way that you can catch a cold or flu by this sort of contact, you can infect your eyes.

Allergy Sufferers Beware

If you’re prone to allergies like me, you’re no doubt aware of the terrible itching sensation that allergy-related dry eyes can cause. But don’t sacrifice long-term comfort for short-term relief. Rubbing your eyes can actually exacerbate the itchiness by interfering with your body’s natural immune response to fighting allergies.

Underlying Conditions

Eye rubbing is particularly bad for people dealing with an underlying eye condition like glaucoma. The spike in ocular pressure associated with eye rubbing can interfere with blood flow to the back of the eye, which results in further nerve damage and vision loss.

Similarly, if you’ve recently undergone an eye procedure like LASIK or cataract surgery, your doctor will have advised you to avoid rubbing your eyes altogether, as it could negatively impact the healing surfaces in the eye quality of your results. This is why patients are often advised to sleep wearing a protective cover for the eyes to avoid accidental contact.

A Non-rubbing Alternative to Eye Rubbing

If you’ve got dry-eye related itchiness, try using over-the-counter eye drops to help lubricate and relieve. A neat trick is to store your drops in the refrigerator. The coolness adds another soothing dimension that helps provide immediate relief. (Be sure to check the label to make sure that cold storage is okay for your particular brand of drops.)

If you’ve got dust or other foreign particles in your eye that are causing discomfort, try using a saline eyewash to help flush them out. Similar to eye drops, these washes offer the added benefit of soothing and cooling the eyes.

If all else fails and you’re dealing with chronic itchiness or discomfort of the eyes, schedule an appointment with an eye doctor to see if there is an underlying issue at play.

Remember, it’s okay to give your eyes a little rub every now and again, but always be conscious of the pressure that you’re applying, the frequency with which you’re doing it, and whether or not your hands are clean.

If you’re interested in learning more, you might want to check out some of our other articles related to eye pain and discomfort:

What’s Causing Your Eye Pain?

6 Tips for Beating Contact Lens Discomfort

Is Your Sleeping Position Contributing to Your Dry Eye Problem?