Monday Medical: Keep irritants out of the eye |

Monday Medical: Keep irritants out of the eye

Lindsey Reznicek
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

Whether it’s a burning sensation, a scratchy feeling or a trickle of tears, eye irritants have a way of making themselves known.

“It doesn’t take long for a reaction to occur due to something being on the eye,” said Dr. Nathan Hamburger, an ophthalmologist in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “Reactions could come in the form of redness or ocular irritation, pain, tearing or the sensation of a foreign body being on the eye.”

Below, Hamburger discusses some of the most frequent eye irritants, what to do and when to seek additional care.

Common irritants

Vapors, liquids and particles can all irritate the eye.

“It could be an odorous cleaning solution, smoke from a campfire, chlorinated pool water, dust, pollen, pet dander – the list goes on,” said Hamburger. “Irritants can also be things that find themselves unexpectedly on the surface of the eye, like an eyelash, a grain of sand or a metal shaving.”

Chopping onions is one of the more common eye irritants that people think of.

“Onions release a gas called Propanethiol S-oxide when they’re cut, which mixes with enzymes in the onion to ultimately create a sulfuric gas,” said Hamburger. “The gas causes the eye to produce tears as a defense mechanism.”

Smoke from wildfires has affected a number of people over the last few summers.

“When you couple smoke with the drier climate found at higher altitudes, it certainly can irritate your eyes,” said Hamburger.

Symptoms and damage to the eye

Each irritant can create a different set of symptoms, such as watery eyes, redness and discomfort.

“When the eye detects something unusual on it, it’s going to tear and tear and tear until it naturally flushes it out,” said Hamburger.

Inflammation, pain and damage to the eye are possible if the irritant isn’t promptly addressed.

Cleaning solutions like bleach and many products with alkaline, such as drain cleaners, are particularly dangerous. With bleach, it can react with the eye tissue to not only irritate the eye, but cause cell death by protein denaturation, which can lead to corneal scarring, glaucoma and even blindness. Whereas capsaicin, which is found in many peppers and is the main ingredient in pepper spray, can cause mild damage to the corneal surface.


Treating an irritated eye can be as simple as getting away from the stimulant by seeking fresh air or increasing ventilation, and flushing the eye with water to remove the irritant.

“When the eye is irritated, it will tear to flush out the irritant. When you flush the eye with water, you’re helping with that process,” said Hamburger. “That’s why you see eye wash stations so prominently built in labs and workshops where possible eye irritants can be found.”

Flushing should occur until relief is achieved. But, if the eye is still irritated or if a foreign body isn’t making its way out from the eye, seek medical attention.

“Your eye doctor is always a good place to start and understands the importance of removing the irritant quickly so as to not damage the eye,” said Hamburger. “Urgent care or the emergency department are also good options for care.”

After the irritant is removed, over-the-counter treatments such as antihistamine eye drops or artificial tears can help diminish inflammation.


As with other aspects of a person’s health, prevention is the best medicine when it comes to your eyes.

Wear protective glasses when using chemicals and be sure the area is well-ventilated, and consider goggles when swimming in chlorinated or salt water.

Most importantly, don’t rub or touch your eyes.

“The eye is one area of the body where not only irritants can enter, but also infections and other germs,” said Hamburger. “Frequently wash your hands with soap and water rather than simply rinsing.”

For example, if you cut a chili pepper and have capsaicin on your hands, you need the soap to cut through the capsaicin and wash it away. Otherwise, if you touch your eye again, it’s very possible to start the irritation all over again. It’s similar to drinking milk after eating something spicy – the protein casein in milk helps cut through the spice whereas plain water doesn’t provide much relief.

“The eyes are a very important part of our senses,” said Hamburger. “By doing things to keep them irritant-free, you’re prolonging their health and your sight.”

Lindsey Reznicek is a communications strategist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at

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