When your eyes are dry, itchy or irritated, rubbing them can feel so good. Unfortunately, even though rubbing can bring temporary relief, it can cause some long-term problems. So, it’s crucial to understand what’s behind your eye rubbing and what else you can do to help make your eyes feel better.
Here’s why you might be rubbing your eyes
“In my experience, the most common reasons for eye rubbing are dry eye and eye allergies,” said Cori Jones, OD, an optometrist at Banner Health in Tucson, AZ.
When you have dry eyes, you’re not making enough tears, or your tears aren’t the right composition. So, instead of the front of your eye being protected by tears, it’s exposed to the environment. That can irritate them and could feel like burning or itching.
With eye allergies, pollen and air pollutants collect in your tears. In the same way, your skin can get a rash when it’s exposed to an allergen, pollen and pollutants that can create a reaction inside your eyelids that feels itchy and irritated.
Here are some other reasons you might be rubbing your eyes:
- Poor sleep
- Irritation from contact lenses
- Poor vision, especially in children
- The wrong prescription in your glasses or contact lenses
- An infection in your eyelid
- Being sick with a virus such as the cold or flu
Here’s why rubbing your eyes is bad for you
Rubbing your eyes once or twice a day, for example, when you wake up or you feel tired, probably isn’t a big deal. But rubbing your eyes frequently can loosen the collagen bonds in your eyelids and the corners of your eyes. Without these bonds, you can develop eyelid drooping, bags under your eyes and fine lines and wrinkles around your eyes.
When you rub your eyes, you also risk scratching your cornea. You might be causing tiny scratches on your cornea without even knowing it. Over time, these scratches can add up and damage your cornea. Rubbing can also make your cornea thinner.
Rubbing your eyes can introduce small particles into your eyes from your hands, making the irritation worse. And you can transfer germs from your hands to your eyes, which can lead to an eye infection.
Children who rub their eyes are at risk of bulging of the cornea, which can lead to a decrease in vision, scarring of the cornea and possibly the need for a corneal transplant.
Here’s what to do instead of rubbing your eyes
To avoid rubbing your eyes, you want to eliminate the cause. If your eyes get itchy when you work on the computer, read or drive, it could be due to dryness. An over-the-counter artificial tear, like Refresh or Systane, may help alleviate the symptoms. “Avoid drops that claim to ‘get the red out,’ as these may make the problem worse,” Dr. Jones said. See an eye care provider if you need to use the drops more than four times a day.
If the symptoms of itching and irritation are seasonal, allergies are probably causing them. Dr. Jones suggests trying over-the-counter Alaway (ketotifen) or Pataday (olopatadine). If symptoms persist, see an eye care provider.
Cool compresses can also help provide relief for irritated eyes.
Here’s when to see an eye care provider
You can often treat dry eyes or eye allergies with home remedies. But if they aren’t giving you relief, see an eye care provider. You also want to seek medical care if you have eye pain, blurry vision or redness or if your symptoms are getting worse. If someone under age 20 is rubbing their eyes a lot, they should see a professional.
The bottom line
When your eyes are itchy or irritated, rubbing them can make them feel better. But that’s a short-term solution that can lead to long-term problems. A better idea? Figure out what’s causing you to rub your eyes, whether it’s dry eyes, allergies or another issue. Then, take steps to treat the cause so you no longer need to rub your eyes.
Need help treating dry and irritated eyes?
Schedule an appointment with an eye specialist near you.