You can rub a sore muscle or rub in a shared joke between friends, but it is never advised to rub your eyes. Your mom probably told you not to; your doctor might have mentioned it, and both sources advised you to refrain with good reason.
Our hands contain traces of bacteria and germs that we unknowingly carry from numerous sources, including:
- Touching things at work, school, or other public places, including doorknobs, railings, desks, shared keyboards, etc.
- Handling currency that has passed from hand-to-hand and place-to-place
- Touching anything that was handled by someone with a virus, such as a facial tissue box, a medicine bottle cap, used cups, countertops etc.
Eye rubbing can transport a variety of germs from your hands to the eye, increasing the risk of eye stys and numerous other infections and types of irreversible damage.
Infections That Can be caused by Rubbing Your Eye
One of the most common eye infections that can be triggered by the transfer of germs from the fingertips to the eye is pink eye (aka conjunctivitis). Viral conjunctivitis is spread like other viruses: Coughing, sneezing or touching surfaces with the live viral germ will cause the transmission of viral pink eye from one person to another. When the pink eye virus is present, it causes inflammation of the "white" of the eye (sclera) and the inner eyelid surface. This condition will cause an itch that is hard to resist.
It is important not to touch the affected eye with your fingertips, as doing so may actually pass the same germ to your other eye. In some cases, white or light yellow eye mucus will form into an eyelash crust, and in a more progressed stage of pink eye, patients can experience eyelid crusting that temporarily seals the eye lid shut. However, much like a common cold, the ailment will typically run its course in 3 or 4 days.
Patients that experience thick or pus-like eye discharge may be suffering bacterial conjunctivitis. This sticky green or gray mucus caused by bacteria in the eye is extremely contagious and can cause serious damage if left untreated. Patients who suspect they may have contracted this condition should see their doctor right away for antibiotics.
Excessive rubbing of the eyes can also put you at risk of an unsightly sty, the bacteria of which is transmitted through the eyelashes. A sty is a clogged meibomian gland located at the eyelid base, caused by infected eyelash follicles. Styes resemble the look of a pimple on the eyelid and actually contain yellow pus. If you have an eye sty, do not squeeze or poke it with a needle to drain the pus. Instead, wash the affected area with a damp, warm washcloth. The sty will clear within a week of its own course.
Rubbing That Causes Eye Damage
We all do it every once in a while; we wake up in the morning and use our fingers, knuckles, or our palms to rub our eyes. Yet this is the unhealthiest time of the day to do so. In the morning, the cornea may already be swollen from surplus fluid, developing from low overnight oxygen levels within the eye. Rubbing your eyes increases the force on your ocular nerves and eyeball, and transfers pressure to the back of your socket and optic nerves. While most individuals’ eye pressure returns to normal when they stop rubbing, it is possible to cause an eye condition from firm or repeated irritation.
Individuals that suffer progressive myopia (known as short-sightedness) are at an increased risk of suffering a retinal detachment from the back of the eye. Progressive Myopia is caused by a lengthened eyeball in the socket, and rubbing the eyeball harshly or excessively can separate weakened retinas.
Individuals who are diagnosed with glaucoma can also be affected by the increased pressure caused by rubbing, as this can disrupt blood flow at the back of the eye and lead to nerve damage.
Irritating a weakened cornea through rubbing of the eye can apply enough force to alter the cornea from its usual dome-like shape to something more conical. This condition is known as keratoconus.
It is important to note that contact wearers should resist the urge to rub their eyes when removing lenses. At the time contacts are removed, the eye is recovering from oxygen deprivation and is at high risk of cornea damage. In rare cases, vigorous rubbing can cause the cornea to tear.
Alternatives to Rubbing
Instead of rubbing your eyes, opt instead for a variety of safe alternatives to relieve eye itching:
- Use lubricating eye drops, which are gentle and can be applied often
- Relieve irritation using natural remedies by apply a cool towel or cucumber slices to the eyelid
- Employ the use of safe, over-the-counter allergy medications for swollen or itchy eyes, following the directions on the package