Eye irritation, abrasion or pink eye? How to know when it’s time to see an eye doctor

Posted by Naomie Warner, D.O.
January 21, 2016

Eye Irritations BlogWhen a child has a red eye, it can be hard to tell the difference between a scratch on the eye (abrasion) and an infection (pink eye). Both can cause a pinkish-red color to the white part of the eye and excessive tearing. If the child is not old enough to tell you what is going on, they may just cry and rub their eyes.  Here are some key differences between the two.

An abrasion is typically one eye only. Abrasions can happen even if you don’t realize that you were scratched with something. Often, if you get something in your eye or have a scratch on the eye, you may not feel it for the first few hours, and the pain starts later. Abrasions are painful and cause extreme light sensitivity. It’s not uncommon for a person with an abrasion to want to cover their eye or not open it unless the room is dark. Pain from an abrasion is some of the most severe pain you can experience. It will still remain when your eyes are closed. The excessive tearing you have with an abrasion is quite bothersome and will constantly run down your cheek if you don’t wipe the tears away. It also may give you a runny nose.

An infection, on the other hand, can start in one eye and spread to the other within a few days. Usually, the second eye is not as irritated as the first. Infections are itchy, and you will find children trying to rub their eyes. This, in turn, can cause the virus to spread to others as the tears get on hands and are subsequently transferred to doorknobs or countertops and can live there for weeks. Infections also may cause light sensitivity, but not as severe as an abrasion. Kids typically won’t keep their eyes closed in bright lights.

When should you bring your child in to see your health care provider? An abrasion will typically heal itself in one day. If it persists for longer than 24 hours, it is important to be seen by a health care professional in order to prevent the abrasion from turning into an ulcer. An ulcer is a severe infection in the eye that can lead to permanent vision loss if not treated promptly. Classic pink eye is caused by a virus and will run its course in two weeks with or without treatment, but it is important to see a health care professional to ensure that it is not a bacterial infection that needs antibiotics. This is especially true if the eye has any discharge or mucus that you need to wipe away with a tissue. 

As with any health condition, no matter if it is an abrasion or pink eye, proper hand washing techniques are absolutely necessary to prevent further infection or spread of disease.  

Naomie Warner, D.O., is a provider in the Ophthalmology department at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire.

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