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Chemical eye burns: Causes, symptoms and treatment

danger sign with hazardous chemicals

What is a chemical burn in the eye?

An eye burn (ocular burn) can be caused by heat or, more commonly, by getting a chemical in the eye. A chemical burn in the eye occurs when a chemical in liquid, powder or vapor form injures the eye or eyelid. It’s important to get immediate treatment for a chemical eye burn to prevent vision loss.

Types of chemical eye burns 

There are two main types of chemical eye burns: acid and alkali. Severe eye burns of both types can cause vision loss, but alkali burns tend to cause more serious eye damage more quickly.

Acid eye burns

Getting an acid such as battery acid or hydrochloric acid in the eye can lead to an acid eye burn. An acid eye burn is serious, but it typically leads to the formation of hard damaged tissue that may prevent the acid from penetrating more deeply into the eye.

Alkali eye burns

Getting an alkali chemical, such as oven or drain cleaner, in the eye can lead to an alkali eye burn. And alkali eye burn is extremely dangerous because it can liquefy eye tissue, allowing the chemical to penetrate deep into the cornea. This can cause serious damage that can lead to vision loss or blindness.

You should flush the eye out right away and seek immediate medical attention with both types of chemical eye burns. It is important to provide the medical team with as much detail as possible about the exact type of chemical that caused the eye injury.

Causes of chemical eye burns

Everyday household products such as laundry detergent or hydrogen peroxide can cause a chemical eye burn if they accidentally splash or get rubbed into your eye. 

Substances such as non-toxic soap or sunscreen may cause eye irritation without any lasting eye damage. Other chemicals such as drain cleaner may cause severe eye burns that put you at risk for permanent vision loss even with only brief contact.

The following are some common household items that can cause chemical eye burns. If you get a chemical in your eye, you should continuously flush the eye with water or eye wash and seek emergency medical treatment right away.

Substance Chemical Acid or Alkali?
Battery acid Sulfuric acid Acid
Bleaches Sulfurous acid Acid
Some household cleaners (glass cleaners, bathroom cleaners. etc.) Ammonium hydroxide Alkali
Drain cleaners Lye Acid and Alkali
Fireworks/ sparklers Magnesium hydroxide Alkali
Glass etching paste Hydrofluoric acid* Acid
Vinegar Acetic acid Acid

*Although it is an acid, hydrofluoric acid can penetrate eye tissues quickly much like an alkali substance, so it tends to cause more severe eye burns.

What chemicals cause blindness?

There are many chemicals that can cause blindness if the burn is severe. Some of the most dangerous chemicals that can get in the eye are alkali substances, such as drain cleaners, oven cleaners and cement. Household chemicals that can cause blindness include: ammonia, hydrofluoric acid and lye.

How to prevent chemical eye burns

There are several steps you can take to prevent chemical eye burns at home. 

Some tips for preventing these types of eye burns include:

  • Keep personal care products away from your eyes. Read labels on personal care products like sunscreen, and heed warnings to keep products away from the eyes. Never spray sunscreen directly on your face.

  • Protect your eyes from household chemicals. It’s a good idea to wear safety glasses or a face shield while working with chemicals. That’s especially important in scenarios where you might get splashed, such as when cleaning a toilet or unclogging a drain. 

  • Read labels on chemicals. Learn how to use the chemical properly and what to do if it gets in your eyes. When possible, swap out more dangerous chemicals like ammonia for milder cleaners.

  • Stay safe from fumes. It’s not just physical contact that can harm the eyes. Fumes can cause damage to the mucous membranes of the eyes. Avoid mixing chemicals that should not be combined, and work in well-ventilated spaces.

It’s also a good idea to make a plan for what to do if a chemical gets in your eye at home. Keep a commercial eye wash at home for these situations.

Chemical eye burn symptoms

A chemical eye burn can happen when a chemical makes contact with the eye by splashing up or getting rubbed into the eye when there is chemical residue on the fingers. In some cases, a chemical in powder form may blow or waft into the eye.

Symptoms of a chemical eye burn include:

Symptoms don’t always match the severity of a chemical eye burn. For example, some alkali substances may cause significant eye damage without causing severe pain, redness or other symptoms. 

That’s one reason it’s important to seek medical attention right away if you get a chemical in your eye.

Chemical eye burn treatment

Chemical eye burn treatment starts with flushing the eye out with water, saline or eye wash immediately. Irrigating the eye right away for at least 30 minutes may reduce the severity of a chemical eye burn and help prevent vision loss. If you wear contact lenses and they do not come out during eye irrigation, take them out with clean fingers as soon as you can. It is important not to rub the eyes, as this may cause further injury.

An eye doctor, EMT, emergency department doctor or other medical professional may continue to irrigate the eye. Other treatments will depend on the type of chemical that caused the burn and its severity.

Treatment for a less severe chemical eye burn may include:

  • Antibiotic eye ointment or eye drops

  • Artificial tears

  • Steroid eye drops 

  • Eye drops for chemical burn pain

More severe chemical eye burns may require additional treatment, such as: 

  • Removal of necrotic (dead) tissue

  • Amniotic membrane transplant 

  • Eye surgery

Chemical eye burn healing time

Chemical eye burns are classified according to severity — from grade one (least severe) to grade four (most severe). Grade one chemical eye burns have an excellent prognosis, and the prognosis worsens as severity increases.

A minor chemical eye burn typically heals within three weeks, but more severe chemical eye burns can take longer to heal and may require surgery. With some severe burns, doctors may be unable to prevent vision loss or save the eye.

After healing, it’s important to get regular checkups from your eye doctor, especially if you had a severe burn. Possible long-term complications of a chemical eye burn may include dry eyes, glaucoma or damage to the eyelids or conjunctiva that may require further treatment. 

When to get medical treatment for a chemical eye burn

A chemical eye burn should be considered a medical emergency. Flush your eye out at home continuously and call 911 or go to the emergency department. Keep irrigating your eye on the way. Getting treatment as quickly as possible maximizes your chances of making a full recovery.

READ NEXT: What to do if you get bleach in your eye

Ocular burns. StatPearls. April 2022.

Eye injuries — chemical burns. Victoria State Government. July 2020.

Chemical (alkali and acid) injury of the conjunctiva and cornea. EyeWiki. American Academy of Ophthalmology. January 2022.

Ocular chemical injuries and their management. Oman Journal of Ophthalmology. August 2013.

Burns to the eye. MSD Manual — Consumer Version. May 2022.

Medical management guidelines for ammonia. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. January 2017.

Facts about hydrogen fluoride (hydrofluoric acid). National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH). April 2018.

Sodium Hydroxide. Virginia Department of Health. November 2018.

How to use cosmetics safely around the eyes. American Academy of Ophthalmology. March 2021.

Should you wear safety glasses to clean your bathroom mirror? University of Utah Health. October 2014.

Treating acute chemical injuries of the cornea. EyeNet Magazine. July 2022.

Should I worry about getting soap in my eyes? American Academy of Ophthalmology. October 2013.

Ask the expert: can you safely use sunscreen around your eyes? If so, what kind would be best? Skin Cancer Foundation. September 2018.

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