This Is How To Stop Rubbing The Eyes
Recently, I developed a stye on my eye. (Despite our knowledge about treating and preventing disease, eye doctors aren't immune to developing eye disease).
My eye was irritated! And although I knew that rubbing the eye is bad for the eye, the urge was STRONG. I know firsthand, that it can be VERY difficult holding back from rubbing the eyes.
But for the health of the eyes, it's important to stop rubbing the eyes. The best way this is done is by treating what's actually causing you to want to rub your eyes; whether that be allergies, dry eye, contact lenses, or just a habit.
Since the urge can be strong, getting rid of that urge is the best way to stop rubbing the eyes. Let's see how that's done.
Why Rubbing The Eyes Is Bad
If you have an itch on your skin and scratch and rub it, in general you don't have the potential to cause long term damage to your skin.
But the eyes are different.
The biggest concern with rubbing the eyes is causing the cornea to become weak.
When the cornea becomes weak, it can change shape. Initially this may only increase the amount of prescription and astigmatism in your vision. But as it gets worse, it can cause your vision to become distorted and cause you to lose vision. This is a condition known as Keratoconus.
This is the main condition we aim to prevent by avoiding rubbing of the eyes. Check out THIS Is What Happens If You Rub Your Eyes Too Much to learn about all the other problems of rubbing the eyes.
Treating The Urges For Rubbing
There are a few main and common conditions and triggers for rubbing the eyes. And if these triggers still exist, good luck at trying to stop rubbing the eyes.
Well, you could get a fancy gadget which alerts you when you are touching your face or eyes. (not just science fiction! researchers have actually developed prototypes during the COVID pandemic to avoid touching the face).
But probably better is to treat the cause of the rubbing.
What happens when your eyes itch? Similar to having an itch on the skin, you want to scratch it. So you rub your eyes. This is why allergies is perhaps the biggest cause of rubbing the eyes.
Allergies are caused by a response of the body to an allergen such as pollen or dust. If you have an allergy, these allergens cause the release of histamine which causes the allergy symptoms of redness, inflammation and of course itching that you are all too familiar with. These allergens can get onto the surface of the eye as well and cause those same annoying symptoms.
But of course, rubbing the eyes doesn't get rid of the itch. That would be too easy.
In fact, rubbing the eyes can make the allergies worse. Protecting our eyes from debris are our eyelids and eyelashes. Excess allergens can collect and build-up on our eyelashes. When we rub the eye we can knock those allergens into the eye causing the allergies to get worse. Also, just the simple act of rubbing the eye can increase the redness and itchiness of the eye - making you want to rub the eye more.
Not only that, rubbing an itchy eye often doesn't provide much satisfaction. When we scratch an itch on the skin, we get a satisfying scratch reflex (despite that scratching the skin causes more irritation and itch). But rubbing the eyes causes the smooth eyelids to slide across the smooth surface of the eye. No scratch reflex; much less satisfaction.
But allergies can be treated!
- Antihistamines are medications that prevent histamine from causing the allergy symptoms. These include a number of over the counter medications. If you have chronic or seasonal allergies, pick your favorite and go from there. But avoid Benadryl or diphenhydramine; that is an older generation of antihistamine that has more side effects such as dry eye.
- But allergies on the eye can be directly targeted with allergy eye drops. Fortunately one of the most effective drops, called Pataday, is also available over the counter. Not only does pataday block histamine (like other antihistamines), but pataday also works to prevent the release of histamine in the first place to provide more effective longer term relief.
- But don't stop there. In addition to medications, there are some effective at-home treatments you can do. Using a cooling eye mask can provide great symptom relief of itching. Placing anything cold on the body reduces inflammation. Because allergies are a form of inflammation, a cooling eye mask can help to significantly reduce allergies and symptoms.
- Lastly, avoid your allergens as much as possible. This may be easier for some and near impossible for others. For example, as cute as they are, if you are allergic to cat hair, don't go out and adopt a cat. If you are allergic to dust, keep your house clean (time to invest in the dyson you've always wanted?). But if you are allergic to tree pollen, short of avoiding going outside, there may be nothing you can really do except treat the allergies.
Treating the allergies and reducing the irritation and itch will allow you to stop rubbing the eyes.
Dry Eye / Eye Discomfort
Moving beyond allergies, we come to another very common urge to rub the eyes: having discomfort on the eyes.
This is a big category! It includes:
- Irritation from contact lenses
- Chronic blepharitis (chronic inflammation of the eyelids)
- Eyes drying out
The stye that I had fell into this category.
With allergies and itching, it’s intuitive on how an itchy eye will cause you to want to rub the eye. So how does rubbing “help" in these situations?
Rubbing can actually provide some symptomatic relief for eye discomfort. Within our eyelid are tiny glands. These glands secrete tears and oils to build up our protective tear film and keep our eye from drying out. When we rub and compress the eyelids, we can actually express more of these tears and oils. This provides a short term relief from eye discomfort. But of course, it is bad in the long term.
This makes you more likely to rub the eyes when you experience ocular irritation, fatigue or eye strain. This can happen commonly:
- during "screen time” on computers or cell phones
- after or before sleep
- after a shower
If you live in a hot and dry climate, you are also at a higher risk.
But before you get rid of all your screens, avoid showers and move to the tropics, here are some better ways to treat the ocular discomfort.
- For simply eyes drying out, the best initial solution is to use artificial tears. Instead of rubbing the eyes to squeeze out a few extra tears in the eyelid glands, you can add extra ones from a bottle. Standard artificial tears can be used up to four times a day. If you desire to use tears more frequently than that, look for the preservative-free variety to avoiding the preservatives in standard artificial tears from irritating the eyes.
- Also pay attention to other non-eye factors such as hydration, nutrition, sleep habits. All of those play a role in how well the eyes are able to keep from drying out.
- Chronic blepharitis can be treated one of two ways depending on the main issue. For poor oil production in the eyelids, taking omega-3 supplements as well as using daily warm compresses can help. Using a dedicated eye heating mask can be very efficient to improve the eyelid oils. For more generalized inflammation from an overgrowth of skin bacteria on the eyelids, using daily eyelid scrubs can be effective.
Additional note on contact lenses
Some contact lens wearers can fall into the habit of rubbing their eyes after taking out their contact lenses. This rubbing can be quite significant.
When we wear contact lenses, our eye dries out more. Contact lenses disrupt the normal tears that sit on the surface of our eye. In addition, contact lenses can make those tears more likely to evaporate away.
This is only one of the ways contact lenses can dry the eyes out.
But not only that, normally our eyes respond to a drying environment by producing more tears. Contact lenses temporarily prevent the eye from being exposed and thus reduce our natural tear production.
But when you take out the contact lens, suddenly the eye becomes exposed. This causes extra symptoms of dry eye upon removing contact lenses; symptoms that can cause you to rub the eyes.
Just like treating dry eye, similar things can be do to help with irritation from contact lenses. But occasionally changes need to be made in the contacts or solution in order to make contact lenses more comfortable on the eye. Learn more at What To Do About Dry Eye From Contacts
Just A Habit
If there is nothing going on with the eye, you may just have a habit. A bad habit, but a habit nonetheless.
The habit of rubbing the eye can form for a variety of reasons:
- As a response to mental or emotional stress or tension
- May cause a pleasurable sensation of lights
- Develop from an OCD-like compulsion
These causes of eye rubbing can be more challenging to treat. Habits are strong.
One of my favorite books on changing habits is the “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. In this book, he talks about how habits form and what can be done to change them. Breaking a habit completely is very difficult. Instead it is more effective to replace the habit with an alternative.
The same principles can apply to the habit of rubbing the eyes. Avoidance by sitting on your hands is unlikely to fix your eye rubbing. Finding an alternative activity to replace rubbing the eyes can more effectively help modify the habit. For example, instead of rubbing the eyes, squeezing your nose or ear lobes can be a less harmful way satisfy your urge to do something.
But expect breaking the habit to be hard work.
Chances are there is a very good reason why you rub your eyes. Common reasons include allergies, dry eye and contact lens use. And targeting this reason gives you the best chance to stop rubbing the eyes and prevent the development of keratoconus and other problems with the eyes.
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