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What to do if you get hand sanitizer in your eye

During the coronavirus pandemic, people have been urged to practice more thorough hand hygiene, including constant handwashing and the increased use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer to kill harmful germs.

While hand sanitizer is more convenient than handwashing, it contains chemicals that can be hazardous, especially if they come in contact with eyes. That’s because many hand sanitizers contain a high concentration of ethanol, a chemical that is strong enough to destroy cells in the cornea, the clear front surface of the eye.

A small amount of hand sanitizer in the eye can frequently be flushed out with natural tears. But if a large amount of hand sanitizer comes in contact with the eye, additional treatment is required — including rinsing the eye with lukewarm water and other emergency treatment.

What to do if you get hand sanitizer in your eyes

If hand sanitizer (or another chemical irritant) gets into your eye, it is important to flush it out quickly and safely. It’s also important to resist the urge to rub your eyes, as this can cause further irritation and spread the chemical around your eye.

The first step in rinsing hand sanitizer out of your eyes is diluting the chemical. Rinsing the affected eye(s) should be done in a timely manner.

Steps for safely rinsing eyes 

  1. If there is hand sanitizer on your hands, quickly wash them with soap and water.

  2. If you are wearing contact lenses, remove them immediately.

  3. Run the affected eye(s) under lukewarm water for 10-15 minutes, rapidly blinking while the water runs. 

  4. If only one eye is affected, lean your head in the direction of the affected eye.

  5. Gently pat dry with a clean towel.

In the event that any mild irritation remains, you can try using natural tears for relief. The tap water used for rinsing may also cause irritation and dryness, which can also be treated with natural tears. If you continue to experience pain, redness or other serious irritation, however, contact an eye doctor immediately.

SEE RELATED: Eye germs and viruses: Keeping hands, glasses and contacts clean

Signs that hand sanitizer has entered your eyes

When hand sanitizer comes into contact with your eye, you will likely experience a burning sensation immediately. You may experience some other signs that you’ve got alcohol in your eyes either simultaneously or shortly after the reaction. These can include:

Symptoms may be more severe depending on which part of the eye was affected. If hand sanitizer comes in contact with the cornea (the transparent layer that covers the front of the eye) or the conjunctiva (the tissue which lines the eyelids and the white part of the eye), irritation may be more intense and can cause further problems for the eye.

If a chemical or irritant of any kind enters the eye, it is important to flush it out as quickly and carefully as possible. Cases in which a larger amount of the particular irritant comes in contact with the eye — or if the chemical stays in the eye for a prolonged period of time — may lead to further complications, such as infection, chemical eye injury or even blindness.

When to see an eye doctor

Still experiencing irritation after properly rinsing your eyes? Contact your doctor within a few hours of exposure. Depending on the amount of hand sanitizer your eye was exposed to (or the length of time it was exposed), the effects may be severe. 

An eye injury — especially a chemical exposure — should be considered an emergency if you experience changes or loss in your vision, if irritation persists or if additional symptoms occur. 

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Can hand sanitizer cause severe damage to eyes?

Most cases of hand sanitizer-related eye injuries do not cause permanent damage, as long as they are treated promptly and properly. However, this doesn’t mean that getting hand sanitizer in your eye isn’t dangerous.

It should be noted that children are more susceptible to eye injuries associated with hand sanitizer than adults. This is in part because many automatic hand sanitizer dispensers in public places are at eye level for children. Additionally, some hand sanitizer bottles may simply be too difficult for children to use properly, which can cause accidents, such as getting some of the product in the eye. 

A study conducted by JAMA Ophthalmology found that pediatric eye exposures to hand sanitizer were seven times greater over a five month period in 2020 than in 2019. 

Exposure also proved to be more severe during this time frame, and required emergency medical treatment for many people. Two cases were so severe that they required amniotic membrane transplants.

A note on eye safety

Following eye safety basics can help prevent unwanted accidents, injuries and other eye emergencies. This is recommended whether or not there are excessive germs in the air due to cold and flu season or the coronavirus pandemic.

Some best practices to avoid hand sanitizer-related eye injuries include:

  • Wash your hands frequently and encourage children to do the same.

  • Use soap and water to wash hands whenever possible. Hand sanitizer should be used only when you’re on the go, or when soap and water are not available.

  • Coach children on how to use hand sanitizer properly, whether it is distributed from a bottle, spray or automatic dispenser. NOTE: Many automatic dispensers are at eye level for children, which poses a distinct danger; these should always be used with caution (and supervision).

  • Avoid touching or rubbing your eyes, especially after using hand sanitizer. If you need to touch your eyes, do so with freshly washed hands.

In addition to being cautious while using hand sanitizer, be sure to support your eyes’ health with annual comprehensive eye exams — and do not hesitate to contact your eye doctor for concerns in between exams. 

Eye exams are especially important for children, as they can be more susceptible to eye injuries and other concerns.

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