June 14, 2024

Care Nex

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What Happens When You Rub Your Eyes Too Much?

5 min read

If you find yourself rubbing your eyes during the day, listen up.

Whether first thing in the morning or throughout the day while staring at a computer, rubbing your eyes is an easy habit to form.

“It’s super common,” said Jill Beyer, OD, an assistant clinical professor of ophthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine. “Everybody at some point I’m sure has felt the need to want to rub their eyes a little bit.

When a person rubs their eyes, it can stimulate tears and lubricate the eye, Beyer explained. Some of the appeal may be that it’s “tactile,” and can momentarily “numb some of the feeling in the eyes,” she said.

However, rubbing your eyes at all—especially if it’s done frequently—is generally frowned upon by eye health specialists.

The practice can put unnecessary pressure on the eye and, in some cases, can even lead to a serious condition called keratoconus, Masako Chen, MD, an assistant professor of ophthalmology and director of the Comprehensive Eye Clinic at Mount Sinai’s New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, told Health.

“I honestly think everybody should never rub their eyes, and just put artificial tears in if it’s itchy,” said Chen. “It would actually reduce a lot of visits to the doctor.”

Here’s why you may be tempted to rub your eyes, how the habit can be dangerous, and when to seek help from a healthcare professional.

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Anybody can feel a compulsion to rub their eyes, but certain eye issues may make some people more prone to rubbing their eyes too frequently.

For instance, allergies can be a major driver of eye rubbing.

Whether it’s due to seasonal allergies or some sort of other condition, people with allergic conjunctivitis, or eye allergies, often experience itching, burning, and clear discharge that makes them more prone to rubbing their eyes. 

Eye ailments can also cause more rubbing—blepharitis, an inflammation of the eyelids, and viral conjunctivitis, or pink eye, can cause a person to rub their eyes more frequently, Beyer and Chen said, respectively.

And, dry eye may also be a common rubbing culprit.

“Nowadays we’re all sitting in front of our phones, computers and we’re not blinking enough—our tear film evaporates away,” said Clark Chang, OD, the director of global medical affairs with Glaukos and director of specialty lenses with Wills Eye Hospital.

“In addition to rising reports of allergy, [dry eye] is also getting diagnosed more and more [commonly], and we know those patients tend to rub their eyes,” he explained.

Beyer added that eye fatigue or eye strain—also frequently caused by staring at a screen—can also cause someone to rub their eyes.

And, even if someone doesn’t experience one of these conditions, frequent eye rubbing can simply be a habit for some people, Chang told Health.

Overall, rubbing the eyes tends to do more harm than good.

For allergy sufferers, rubbing your eyes “can actually release more histamines,” making the eyes increasingly itchy, Beyer said.

Abrasions are also a cause for concern.

According to Beyer, rubbing the eye too hard could cause an injury to the cornea. And if you rub your eyes while there’s something in it that’s not supposed to be—even dust—injury could also occur, Chen said.

“You’re walking in the street, something gets in the eye, and if you do have something in there, you can [get] up to the point that you can cause an abrasion, which can be very, very painful,” she explained.

And, though it’s less common, rubbing your eyes can lead to a more serious condition.

Whenever a person rubs their eye, the pressure in the eye is increased, which can, over time, warp the cornea and make it thinner, explained Chen. This can also cause damage to the collagen fibers and other proteins that make up the eye, Chang added.

In some cases, these changes to the cornea can lead to keratoconus—a bulging of the cornea—in susceptible people.

Chang explained that keratoconus is more commonly seen and diagnosed in younger people and can be quite serious. Chen added that in some cases, those who develop keratoconus will need a “procedure or even a corneal transplant if it’s advanced.”

Beyer clarified that eye rubbing isn’t the only way to cause keratoconus, though it is one of the ways for the condition to occur.

If you do have keratoconus, she said, rubbing your eyes continuously will make the condition worse.

And again—not every person who frequently rubs their eyes will develop keratoconus, Chang emphasized.

Even if you haven’t developed keratoconus, experts agree that rubbing your eyes is a habit everyone should try to break. 

“In general, it’s best to try to avoid rubbing the eyes if possible, which I know is hard,” said Beyer.

If people are rubbing their eyes when they feel dry, they can reach for artificial tears instead, Beyer recommended.

Additionally, if a person notices they’re rubbing their eyes while working at a computer or at other points when they’re experiencing eye fatigue, Beyer recommends the 20-20-20 rule—every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds.

“We’re all on our computers and our devices all the time, and so almost everyone now has a degree of ocular fatigue or dry eyes, just eye strain in general,” she said. “It might feel good for a moment, but it could make things worse and cause more problems.”

If someone feels like they can’t stop rubbing their eyes, or if they’re experiencing blurry vision, eye sensitivity or irritation, eye redness, pain, or other issues, those are all indicators that they should see an eye doctor, Chen said. 

Whether it’s dry eye, allergies, keratoconus, or something else, a healthcare professional can help someone get to the root of the problem.

“If you worry about your eye rubbing and you don’t know what the reason is,” said Chang, “I definitely recommend that you should go to the eye doctor to have that checked out.”

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