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Eye Rubbing: A Common but Risky Habit

Don't Rub Your Eyes!

Eye rubbing is a common habit that many people do without thinking. However, it can have harmful consequences for your eyes and your appearance. Eye rubbing can damage the structure of your eye, create cosmetic issues, increase the risk of infections and worsen existing eye conditions.

One of the most serious effects of eye rubbing is that it can cause or worsen keratoconus. Keratoconus is a condition where the cornea (the clear front surface of the eye) becomes thin and bulges outwards into a cone shape. This distorts vision and makes it hard to see clearly. Keratoconus usually develops in young people and can progress over time.

Eye rubbing can contribute to keratoconus by thinning the corneal tissue and weakening its structure. Eye rubbing may be more harmful for people who have genetic factors that predispose them to keratoconus. Eye rubbing can also affect your appearance by creating dark circles and wrinkles around your eyes. This is because eye rubbing can break tiny blood vessels under the skin, causing bruising and swelling. Eye rubbing can also stretch and sag the delicate skin around your eyes, making you look older.

To avoid eye rubbing, you need to address the underlying causes that make you want to rub your eyes. Some common causes are allergies, dry eyes, eyestrain, irritants or infections. You can try using artificial tears, antihistamines, lubricating eye drops or cold compresses to soothe your eyes. You should also avoid wearing contact lenses if they irritate your eyes. If you have a foreign object in your eye, do not rub it but let tears flush it out or seek medical help.

Causes of eye rubbing

There are many reasons why you might feel the urge to rub your eyes. Some of the common causes are:

  • Eye infection: Conjunctivitis, or pink eye, is a contagious infection that makes your eyes red, itchy and watery. It is caused by bacteria or viruses that can be transferred from your hands to your eyes.
  • Allergies: Allergic reactions to pollen, dust, pet dander or other substances can cause your eyes to itch and swell. Rubbing your eyes can increase the histamine levels and worsen the symptoms.
  • Blepharitis: This is a condition where the eyelids become inflamed and clogged with oil and debris. It can cause itching, burning, crusting and redness of the eyes.
  • Eyestrain: This is when your eyes become tired and sore after looking at something for a long time, such as a computer screen, a book or a TV. It can cause blurred vision, headaches and dry eyes.
  • Dry eyes: This is when your eyes do not produce enough tears or the tears evaporate too quickly. It can make your eyes feel scratchy, gritty and irritated.
  • Foreign object: Sometimes, you might have something in your eye that causes discomfort or pain, such as an eyelash, dust or sand. Rubbing your eye can help to remove it, but it can also damage your eye if you rub too hard or if the object is sharp.
  • Habit: Some people rub their eyes as a habit when they are stressed, bored, sleepy or emotional. It can be a way to relax or stimulate themselves.

Risks of eye rubbing

Rubbing your eyes might seem harmless, but it can actually cause serious problems for your eye health and appearance. Some of the risks are:

  • Corneal damage: The cornea is the clear front part of the eye that allows light to enter. Rubbing your eyes too hard or too often can weaken the collagen fibers that support the cornea and cause it to bulge outwards. This condition is called keratoconus and it can impair your vision and require contact lenses or surgery.
  • Eye pressure: Rubbing your eye can temporarily increase the pressure inside your eye, which can be harmful for people with glaucoma or other eye diseases that affect the optic nerve. High eye pressure can reduce blood flow to the back of the eye and damage the optic nerve, leading to permanent vision loss. Rubbing your eyes can raise the eye pressure temporarily and worsen glaucoma if you have it or increase the risk of developing it if you don’t.
  • Dark circles and wrinkles: Rubbing your eye can cause tiny blood vessels under the skin to break, resulting in dark circles and puffiness around the eyes. Rubbing can also stretch and weaken the skin around the eyes, causing wrinkles and sagging.
  • Infections: Your hands are full of bacteria and other germs that can easily transfer to your eyes when you rub them. This can cause infections such as conjunctivitis (pink eye), which can make your eyes red, itchy and watery.
  • Foreign objects: If you have something in your eye, such as dust or an eyelash, rubbing can push it deeper into your eye or scratch your cornea. This can cause more irritation and damage to your eye. It is better to let tears naturally flush out the foreign object or use sterile saline or artificial tears to rinse your eye.
  • Retinal detachment: This is when the thin layer of tissue at the back of the eye that senses light peels away from the wall of the eye. Rubbing your eyes can cause sudden changes in pressure inside the eye that can disturb the vitreous gel and pull on the retina. This can lead to vision loss if not treated promptly.

Tips to avoid eye rubbing

Rubbing your eyes may feel good in the moment, but it can have long-term negative consequences for your eye health and appearance. The best way to avoid eye rubbing is to treat the underlying cause that makes your eyes itch or irritated. Some of the tips are:

  • Keep your eyes hydrated: Dry eyes are one of the main reasons why people rub their eyes. To keep your eyes moist and comfortable, use artificial tears or lubricating eye drops regularly. You can also use a humidifier or avoid dry environments such as air-conditioned rooms or windy places.
  • Treat allergies: Allergies can cause itchy and watery eyes that make you want to rub them. To relieve allergy symptoms, use antihistamine eye drops or oral medications. You can also avoid allergens such as pollen, dust or pet dander by wearing sunglasses or staying indoors.
  • Get enough sleep: Lack of sleep can make your eyes tired and sore, which can trigger eye rubbing. To prevent this, try to get at least seven hours of quality sleep every night. You can also use a cold compress or cucumber slices to soothe your eyes in the morning.
  • Over-the-counter or prescription medication: Saline or artificial tears can help to moisten and soothe dry or irritated eyes. Antihistamines or steroid drops can help to reduce inflammation and itching caused by allergies or infections. Consult your doctor before using any medication for your eyes.
  • Apply a warm compress: A warm cloth or towel placed over your closed eyes for 10 to 15 minutes can help to loosen any oil or debris on your eyelids and relieve inflammation and itching. You can do this twice a day or as needed.
  • Take breaks from screen time: Staring at a screen for too long can cause eyestrain and dry eyes. Follow the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Blink often and use artificial tears if needed. Adjust the brightness, contrast and distance of your screen to suit your comfort.
  • Use cold water or ice: Splashing cold water on your face or applying ice packs or cold spoons to your eyes can help to reduce swelling and redness. It can also provide a refreshing sensation that might reduce the urge to rub your eyes.
  • Break the habit: Sometimes eye rubbing is just a habit that you do unconsciously or when you are stressed. To break this habit, you need to be aware of when and why you rub your eyes and find alternative ways to cope. For example, you can massage your temples, take deep breaths or drink some water instead of rubbing your eyes.

Eye rubbing might seem like a harmless habit, but it can have serious consequences for your eye health and appearance. By understanding the causes, risks and tips related to eye rubbing, you can protect your eyes and prevent any damage. Remember to consult your eye doctor if you have any concerns or questions about your eyes.

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