March 9, 2023 | Basecamp, Keratoconus

THIS Is What Happens If You Rub Your Eyes Too Much

By Barrett Eubanks, M.D.

THIS Is What Happens If You Rub Your Eyes Too Much

As you may have already suspected, rubbing your eyes isn’t good for them. But just how bad is it?

Chronically rubbing your eyes can weaken your cornea and cause it to change shape. This can cause you to lose vision. But even beyond that, rubbing the eye can cause a whole host of other issues from increasing the pressure in the eye to increasing the risk for an infection or irritation.

So yeah, rubbing your eyes too much can be bad.

Let’s first go over what it can do to the eyes and then we’ll talk about the best ways to change those eye rubbing habits.

Keratoconus, The Biggest Risk Of Rubbing Eyes

When you rub your eye, you are rubbing the front clear part of your eye called the cornea (even if you rub your eyes when the eyelids are closed, the cornea still gets rubbed).

Normally, the cornea is smooth and regular. Light easily passes through and is focused at a perfect spot on the retina in the back of the eye (with or without glasses). Even if you have astigmatism (wherein one side of the cornea is steeper than the other side), that astigmatism probably is also symmetric allowing glasses to correct it.

Keratoconus changes all of that.

With Keratoconus, the cornea becomes weak and changes shape. It begins to bulge forward and become irregular.

Steeper cornea with keratoconus
Steeper cornea with keratoconus; image by Madhero88, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As the cornea becomes irregular, it starts to develop irregular astigmatism, (again, one side is steeper than the other, but NOT symmetrically). This irregular astigmatism causes you to lose vision.

It turns out that the biggest modifiable risk for keratoconus is rubbing the eyes. Rubbing the eyes makes you 3x more likely to get keratoconus.

Within the cornea are support cells called keratocytes. These cells keep the cornea healthy and strong. Rubbing the eye causes these support cells to die off.

And we aren’t just talking about aggressive knuckle-grinding-against-the-cornea rubbing (which of course is bad), we are also talking about repetitive light rubbing of the cornea. None of it is good. All of it can weaken the cornea over time.

Also check out THIS Is What Causes Keratoconus To Get Worse

Other Issues With Rubbing The Eyes

Keratoconus is bad. But it isn’t the only thing that can happen from rubbing the eyes. There are more problems that can develop:

Increase in the pressure of the eye

If you squeeze a balloon, you will increase the pressure of the balloon. Same goes for the eye. If you rub and compress the eye, the pressure inside the eye will increase. In fact, the pressure may increase 10x greater than normal!

Ever have your vision become dark briefly after rubbing your eyes? You probably increased the pressure of your eye to a point where it interfered with the ability of the retina to send vision information to the brain.

Chronically elevating the pressure of the eye can cause you to lose vision permanently. This is what glaucoma is.

Making allergies worse or increasing infection risk

One common reason people rub their eyes is because of allergies. Allergies cause the eyes to itch, rubbing satisfies that itch.

Let’s say you are allergic to pollen. You get pollen around the eyes triggering your allergies. So you rub your eyes. But instead of rubbing the pollen away from the eye, the rubbing actually gets the pollen stuck in the eyelashes or on the surface of the eye. This can make your allergies worse instead of better.

Similar concept for increasing the risk of infection. If you take dirty hands and rub your eyes, you can introduce bacteria to your eye or rub bacteria from the eyelashes into the eye.

Risk to scratch the eye

This especially applies to contact lens users.

Contact lenses can irritate and mechanically wear down the surface of the eye. Especially with the over-use of contact lenses. On top of that, dry eye caused by contacts also leads to a less than healthy surface of the eye.

All this creates an opportunity for rubbing to cause additional trauma and scratch the eye. Not fun; scratches hurt.

Heart Problems

No, that isn’t any typo. Rubbing the eye can actually cause an abnormal heart rate. Specifically, it can cause the hear rate to drop. (Known as the oculocardiac reflex)

Causing a large drop in the heart rate can do a few things

  • It cause you to faint
  • It may cause you to have an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia)
  • In the worst case, it can cause you to even have a heart attack

I hope I don’t need to tell you that those are bad. Good reasons to avoid rubbing the eye.

So How To Stop Rubbing The Eye

It can be hard to stop rubbing the eye. Ultimately the goal is to tackle exactly what is causing the rubbing of the eyes in the first place.

  • Allergies. For most people, allergies are the biggest culprit. The urge to rub an itch is just too much. So getting the allergies under control by avoiding allergens, taking an antihistamine and allergy eye drops are the best approach. In addition, placing a cooling eyemask or cool washcloth on the eyes will help the eyes feel more comfortable whenever the urge to rub develops.
  • General irritation and dry eye is perhaps the second biggest cause. Treat the dry eye with artificial tears to keep it under control. Also it’s important to pay attention to the eyelids. Eyelids contain oil glands that keep our tears from drying out. Taking omega-3 supplements, warming the eyemask and using eyelid scrubs to keep them clean help reduce irritation on the eye.
  • Habit and stress. Without realizing it, you may rub your eyes when you are stressed out or in certain situations, such as upon wakening up. You have developed a habit and habits are hard to break. Instead of cutting out the habit completely (which often doesn’t work), you can achieve better success by instead substituting a different behavior such as squeezing your nose instead of rubbing your eyes. Recommend the classic “The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg to learn more about changing habits.


Rubbing your eyes too much can harm your eyes and your vision. Developing a condition called keratoconus is the biggest risk, but rubbing can also create other problems on the eye. Although hard, some simple strategies can help curtail the habit of rubbing the eyes to prevent further damage.

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