Serious eye injuries aren’t always obvious

Flight attendant Trish Sullivant was on a layover in San Jose, California when she decided to work in a little exercise with her brand-new resistance band. Without warning, the band violently snapped back, hitting her directly in the eye. The trauma caused her to momentarily pass out.

“I was looking down at my feet, doing bicep curls, and the band just snapped out,” she said. She took a cab to the local emergency room, where she was diagnosed with a simple scratch on her cornea. So, she headed home, not knowing she had just sustained a serious, vision-threatening eye injury.

“I flew home, although it was difficult to open or close my eyes and I was seeing black dots and white clouds in my field of vision. What I didn’t know then was that I had a retinal detachment.”

A detached retina occurs when the retina, which is light-sensitive tissue, separates from the back of the eye. When detached, the cells of the retina will begin to die. This can lead to irreversible blindness, so the retina needs to be reattached quickly by an ophthalmologist, a physician who specializes in medical and surgical eye care. If not treated with surgery, a retinal detachment almost always causes blindness, said Dr. Jeff Pettey, a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, in a recent interview.

For Sullivant, it was a life-changing event.

“It was such an unexpected injury,” she said. “Now I’m so much more educated, and I’m all about eye protection. So are my kids.”

While not every eye injury requires emergency treatment, Pettey wants people to know that serious eye injuries are not always immediately obvious. Each eye injury is different, but here are some things to keep in mind as you assess your specific situation:

Pettey said that it’s important to recognize an injury and the appropriate response to it. “Trauma is the most frequent cause of any eye emergency, but any unexplained loss of vision, especially coupled with pain, means it’s time to seek help,” he said.

If you experience any of these signs, get medical help right away:

    • Obvious pain or trouble seeing
    • Cut or torn eyelid
    • One eye does not move as well as the other
    • One eye sticks out compared with the other
    • The pupil develops an unusual size or shape
    • Blood in the clear part of the eye
    • Something gets stuck under the eyelid and can’t be easily removed
    • Seeing flashes of light or “floaters” in your vision

Delaying medical attention can make the damage worse, and can result in permanent vision loss or blindness.

Medical statistics tell us that the house can be a dangerous place for eyes. Nearly half of all eye injuries each year occur in and around the home, and home-based injuries are increasing each year. Accidents involving common household products cause 125,000 eye injuries each year.

Wearing protective eyewear will prevent about 90 percent of these eye injuries. Unfortunately, only 35 percent of people always wear protective eyewear when doing home repair projects. The American Academy of Ophthalmology, along with the American Society of Ocular Trauma, recommend that every household have at least one pair of ANSI-approved protective eyewear for use during projects and activities that may present risk of injury.

Here are some of the more common causes of eye injuries in the home: using hazardous products and chemicals that might splash into your eyes, such as bleach; cooking foods that splatter hot grease or oil; opening champagne bottles; and using hot objects such as curling irons.

Consider these additional safety tips to reduce the risk of eye injuries:

    • Cushion sharp corners and edges of furnishings and home fixtures if you have children or elderly residents in your house
    • Make sure that all spray nozzles are directed away from you
    • Use grease shields on frying pans to protect from splattering

Flushing the eye with water is the best thing you can do if you’ve gotten a chemical, sand or small debris in your eye. But, remember – never wash a cut or puncture wound.

A fish hook in the eye definitely would require a visit to the ER. “We wish this were a rarer occurrence than it is, and, take note, it’s typically not the fisherman’s own hook in most cases, but rather another fisherman accidentally casting in the injured person’s direction,” Pettey said. “So be aware of your surroundings.”

Each year, thousands of people experience an eye injury while participating in recreational activities and athletics such a basketball, hockey and football. Eye injuries send an estimated 42,000 people to the ER each year, about 13,500 of whom go blind. Wearing the proper eye protection could lower those numbers significantly.

“My rules for preventing any type of eye trauma are simple,” Pettey said. “Prevention, prevention, prevention. If you’re involved in any activity where your eyes could get bumped, poked, splashed or sprayed, think about what you need to do to protect them, such as wearing goggles and being acutely aware of your surroundings.”

Each eye injury is different, but there are some things to keep in mind for all eye injuries:

    • DO NOT touch, rub or apply pressure to the eye
    • DO NOT try to remove an object stuck in the eye
    • DO NOT apply ointment or medication to the eye
    • DO NOT rinse with water IF your eye has been cut or punctured. Gently place a shield over the eye; the bottom of a paper cup taped to the bones surrounding the eye can serve as a shield until you get medical attention


    • Men are more likely to sustain eye injuries than women.
    • Most people believe that eye injuries are most common on the job. But, nearly half (44.7 percent) of all eye injuries occurred in the home, as reported during the fifth-annual Eye Injury Snapshot (conducted by the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the American Society of Ocular Trauma).
    • ore than 40 percent of eye injuries reported in the Eye Injury Snapshot were caused by projects and activities such as home repairs, yard work, cleaning and cooking. More than a third (34.2 percent) of injuries in the home occurred in living areas such as the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, living or family room.
    • More than 40 percent of eye injuries every year are related to sports or recreational activities.
    • Eyes can be damaged by sun exposure, not just chemicals, dust or objects.
    • Among all eye injuries reported in the Eye Injury Snapshot, more than 78 percent of people were not wearing eyewear at the time of injury. Of those reported to be wearing eyewear of some sort at the time of injury (including glasses or contact lenses), only 5.3 percent were wearing safety or sports glasses.

Jennifer Churchill, M.A., is a public relations manager for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. She has an M.A. in public relations and enjoys spending time with her four-year-old son, Weston. She also enjoys being part of the Academy’s mission to protect sight and empower lives by serving as an advocate for patients and the public, while advancing the profession of ophthalmology.