Rubbing your eyes may seem fairly harmless. It can momentarily relieve the symptoms of itchy eyes and alleviate the symptoms of a headache. The gentle pressure helps you wake up, and the movement helps clear any discharge that built up in your eyes during the night. Additionally, the rubbing stimulates your lacrimal glands, which produce tears to soothe tired eyes. It also has physiological benefits, pressure on the eye produced when rubbing  actually stimulates the vagus nerve, which slows your heart rate and relieves stress. 

Why Do We Rub Our Eyes?

Eye rubbing has an addictive quality. When your eyes are itchy, the natural response is to rub them. However, when we rub the eyes, they release histamines, which actually make the itching worse. We rub more to satisfy the itch. Though rubbing brings a small sense of pleasure, it also carries hidden risks. Rubbing, knuckling or palming your eyes can cause lasting damage. Below are four very good reasons  to avoid rubbing your eyes

Thinning the cornea

The cornea is the eye’s outermost lens. It controls and focuses the light that enters the eye. Its round shape bends and refracts incoming light to project clear, sharp vision to the back of the eye.

The cornea consists of collagen fibres, layered on top of each other. These fibres are weakened during eye rubbing, resulting in an irregularity in the layering of these fibres. This can cause the cornea to push forward and become more conical. Continuous eye rubbing in susceptible individuals can lead to thinning of the cornea known as keratoconus. While keratoconus occurs for a number of reasons such as genetics, eye disease and stress, research suggests that frequent rubbing causes trauma to the eye, and over time can result in keratoconus.

Keratoconus can severely affect the quality of your vision. Although mild keratoconus can be managed with the assistance of rigid contact lenses, it can potentially progress to the severity where corneal transplant is required. Newer treatment called corneal crosslinking can help before a persons progress to the stage where they need a corneal transplant.

Dark undereye circles

Certain medications, fatigue, ageing and illness all cause dark circles around the eyes. People spend a fortune trying to remove dark circles from under their eyes but there is an easy step you can take to reduce the presence of shadows without the need for concealer. 

The skin around the eye is thin and delicate so when you rub your eyes you can easily break tiny blood vessels. When these blood vessels break, the blood flows into the surrounding tissue, temporarily darkening the skin.

If you consistently wake up with dark circles, you probably rub your eyes in your sleep. A simple solution to this is to wear an eye mask which will provide cushioning to protect your skin. 

In the same way, rubbing the delicate skin around the eye will also help wrinkles develop faster. As we age, the skin loses elasticity. Rubbing the eyes can stretch this delicate tissue resulting in the premature formation of wrinkles.

Infection

Rubbing your eyes makes them vulnerable to infection. We use our hands for just about everything we do during the day from opening doors to handling money, eating food and visiting the bathroom. There are likely to be millions of distinct bacteria on your hand at any one time. Germs are easily transferred from hand to eye. This can result in infections like conjunctivitis, staphylococcus, streptococcus, salmonella, and E. coli. Regular handwashing will reduce your risk of infection and avoiding eye rubbing and eye contact in general will provide further protection. 

Scratched Cornea

The eyes are always at risk of accidental introduction of dust and debris. If those objects are large, your eye will be irritated, and in response, you may want to rub them.

Unfortunately, rubbing your eyes is one of the worst ways to remove particles from the eye. Rather than relieving the irritation, rubbing can cause sharp foreign bodies to scratch your cornea.

Small scratches and abrasions may lead to redness and irritation. Larger, more serious injuries can cause fungal infections and scars. 

If something is stuck in your eye, try not to rub it. Flush it out with sterile saline or artificial tears. If this doesn’t work, seek further help from your optometrist.

Prevention is better than cure!

Sleep well – a good nights sleep will reduce your need to rub your eyes.

Practice good hand hygiene to reduce the risk of infection should you need to touch your eyes.

Use a cold compress to provide relief to the eyes if they are itchy or irritated. 

If itchy eyes are caused by hayfever or other allergens, try either oral or topical antihistamines to help provide relief.

Use eye protection, such as an eye mask at night to prevent rubbing and safety glasses during the day when in dusty environment.

Keep your eyes hydrated – artificial tears are available over the counter for people with dry, irritated eyes. Other eye drops with anti-histamines, mast cell stabilisers and steroids can be prescribed by your doctor or optometrist.

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