Child Eye Injuries: What to do When They Get Poked, Poisoned and More

Parenting |


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To help you — and your child — continue to see things clearly, here are are some more important safety tips.

When it comes to children’s safety issues, it’s important to keep an eye on things…literally. “When discussing accidental eye injuries, prevention really is the best medicine,” says Dr. Charline Boente, a pediatric ophthalmologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. “Parents and caretakers should encourage protective eyewear during sports, as well as keep household chemicals and sharp objects away from children; these small steps can be all it takes to prevent serious injuries to the eye and avoid lifelong poor vision for a child.” To help you — and your child — continue to see things clearly, here are are some more important safety tips.

What should you do if a child gets poked in the eye? 

The answer to this question largely depends on the nature and mechanism of the injury. “Objects or fingers in the eye can cause scratches, infections, retained foreign bodies, or worst case scenario, a laceration or perforation,” says Dr. Boente. “If there is significant discomfort, and the child cannot open his/her eye or if he/she can verbalize that the vision is down, they should be seen by a doctor.”

One thing to try to get the child to avoid, however, is rubbing or pressing on the eye after the incident, as Dr. Boente says this may make the situation a lot worse if there is a perforation. If the irritation seems mild, you might try to administer artificial tears to see if that helps increase eye comfort.

What should you do if a child gets a harmful chemical in the eye? 

In general we’re not discussing something like a little shampoo here (though that can certainly be irritating, it’s not likely to threaten the eye’s functioning long term). Bleach, however, is another story.

As previously mentioned, keeping chemicals away from children is the best line of protection, but of course, accidents happen. Some chemicals are more harmful than others, so it is important to be evaluated by a doctor as soon as possible to assess for any damage.  Even before a trip to the ER, however, should a harmful chemical somehow splash into your child’s eye, you need to take action right away.

“First and foremost, the eye should be flushed immediately with water, before any further action is taken,” says Dr. Boente. “When harmful chemicals sit in the eye, it can cause serious irreversible damage.”

Not sure how to flush out a child’s eye (especially if they’re fighting you about it)? “The ideal way is to have the child lay down and literally pour water in their eye — letting it drain down the side — which is what we do in the ER,” says Dr. Boente. “Realistically, however, the quickest way is probably to go to a sink and bring their head down by the faucet to repeatedly splash their eye(s).”

What should you do if a child has an eye irritation from like chlorine or dust?

General eye irritations most likely become evident if a child is constantly rubbing their eyes, tearing up, or looking red and bloodshot.  If there is significant pain or decreased vision, it is best to be evaluated by an eye doctor, but if it just seems to be a mild irritation or the child has a history of allergies/itchy eyes, Dr. Boente says over-the-counter drops may be a good solution. Actually getting them in a child’s eye, however, can be quite the challenge.

“The best position is supine (laying the child on their back) so gravity is working with you,” says Dr. Boente. “If the child will not open the eye, place a drop in the corner of the eye and have him/her blink it in.”

What else should you be aware of?

The number one way to prevent eye injuries of any nature is to wear eye protection. This includes sunglasses, which can help mitigate damage from the sun to the retina (the most sensitive part of the eye for vision). 

“Kids are often reluctant to wear protective eyewear during sports,” says Dr. Boente. “I'm hoping this will change and instead become a priority and the norm, such as wearing helmets during bike riding.”

Another thing to keep in mind is that with increasing screen time (i.e. TV, iPad, computer, iPhone), parents should remind their children to blink often and take breaks from the screen to reduce eye strain and prevent dry eye symptoms.

Finally, amblyopia is a topic of importance particularly for children under the age of seven or eight. “If there is poor vision in one or both eyes, the brain gets used the poor vision and thinks this poor vision is ‘normal,’” warns Dr. Boente, who says the poor vision can be from a high or uneven glass prescription, misaligned eyes, or something blocking the vision from entering the eye, like a cataract. “It is important to catch this as early as possible so the brain can retrain the eye to see well; beyond the age of seven or eight, it may be too late to correct this type of poor vision.”  Parents and caretakers can watch for some clues, such as eyes crossing or unequal eye reflexes in pictures. However, children have an amazing ability to compensate with their stronger eye and the poor vision can sometimes go unnoticed.

If you suspect any eye issues with your child, whatever the cause, Dr. Boente suggests trying to find an optometrist (OD) or ophthalmologist (MD) who specializes in or is comfortable with the pediatric population, as children’s needs and their management can differ from adult patients. 

-- By Kimberly Dawn Neumann