Corneal Abrasions and Corneal Foreign Bodies

Reviewed/Revised Feb 2024
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What is a corneal abrasion or a corneal foreign body?

The cornea is the clear layer at the front of your eye. An abrasion is a shallow scratch. So a corneal abrasion is a scratch to your cornea.

A corneal foreign body is an object, such as a grain of sand, that gets stuck on your cornea and irritates it. It may be stuck under the upper eyelid making it difficult to remove.

  • A minor corneal abrasion usually heals on its own in a few days

  • A corneal foreign body may need to be removed by a doctor

  • Sometimes an injury to your cornea can get infected—this is more likely to happen if injury was caused by a piece of soil or plant matter

  • Eyedrops or ointment help prevent infection

See a doctor as soon as possible if you think you have a corneal scratch or a corneal foreign body.

An Inside Look at the Eye

What causes a corneal abrasion or foreign body?

Anything that can get into your eye can cause corneal problems. Small bits of material, such as particles in the air, may get blown into your eye by:

  • Strong winds

  • An explosion

  • Working with tools, especially drills, saws, and grinding tools

Your cornea can also get scratched by a:

  • Tree branch

  • Fingernail

  • Hairbrush

  • Make-up applicator

Contact lenses are a common source of problems. You may have corneal problems if you:

  • Wear contact lenses that don’t fit well

  • Wear lenses when your eyes are dry

  • Wear dirty lenses

  • Leave lenses in your eyes too long or sleep with them in

  • Scratch your cornea while taking your lenses out

People with dry eyes have a higher risk of getting a corneal abrasion. Those who work in places where small particles fly around in the air have a higher risk of getting a corneal abrasion or corneal foreign object.

What are the symptoms of a corneal abrasion or foreign body?

Common symptoms include:

  • A feeling that there's something in your eye

  • Increased tearing

  • Increased blinking and squinting

  • Redness

If you have a large or deep abrasion, you may also have:

  • Eye pain

  • Blurry vision

  • Discomfort from bright light

  • Headache

How can doctors tell if I have a corneal abrasion or foreign body?

Doctors can tell if you have a corneal injury by examining your eye. After they check your vision, they'll put a drop of dye in your eye and then look at your eye with a special light. The dye runs into the abrasion and the light makes it glow, which helps show a scratch or foreign body in your cornea. Eye doctors use a special magnifying scope (slit lamp) to look at the cornea.

How do doctors treat a corneal abrasion or foreign body?

Doctors treat corneal abrasions with:

  • Antibiotic drops or ointments

  • Eyedrops to lessen inflammation

Doctors treat corneal foreign bodies by taking out the object. Doctors will:

  • Give you a medicine to numb your eye first

  • Remove the object by flushing it out with water or gently lifting it out on a sterile cotton swab

  • Sometimes, if needed, use a needle or special tool to take out the object

  • Give you medicines to prevent infection and lessen pain

If you wear contact lenses, don't wear them for awhile. Your cornea needs to heal. Your doctor will let you know when it's okay to wear them again.

How can I prevent corneal abrasions and foreign bodies?

You can prevent corneal abrasions and corneal foreign bodies by:

  • Wearing safety glasses that protect your eyes when needed

  • Being careful putting on makeup or using contact lenses

If you feel something in your eye:

  • Rinse your eye with clean water

  • Blink a few times

  • Avoid rubbing your eye

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