In this article, you'll learn what's considered an eye emergency, where to receive medical attention, and what to do in the most common scenarios faced by patients.
This article has been medically reviewed by Eduardo Besser, MD.
Eye conditions come in all shapes and sizes. When a patient has irritation, pain, or soreness, it can be difficult to know whether the situation is a mild inconvenience or an eye emergency requiring urgent medical care.
Please note, this blog is not intended to diagnose or treat specific conditions — it is for informational purposes only. If experiencing concerning symptoms, contact a local medical professional or call 911. Alternatively, seek care at the facility that provides the quickest accommodation.
Eye emergencies are time-sensitive. They require quick and proper treatment. If left untreated, a patient may risk permanent damage and/or vision loss.
There are a range of scenarios and eye conditions that may require emergency eye care. These include but are not limited to severe cuts and scratches, chemical burns, foreign objects in the eye, severe eye pain, sudden changes in vision, and new incidences of floaters or flashing lights.
In all of these scenarios, a patient should seek medical attention. However, the type of medical care to look for will depend on the specific eye care emergency they're experiencing.
There are three primary locations patients can receive emergency eye care.
These locations differ in their opening hours, services offered, and specialists they have on staff. Each is suited to help patients with certain ocular emergencies.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) defines an ophthalmologist as “a medical or osteopathic doctor who specializes in eye and vision care.” They may work as an individual specialist or with a private practice.
A patient will typically schedule an appointment with an ophthalmologist to receive treatment. They can see patients for both routine eye procedures like eye exams and treatment for minor ocular ailments, as well as serious medical scenarios and surgical diseases of the eye, including trauma.
As a trained eye specialist, an ophthalmologist should be a patient's first choice to receive emergency eye care. Some, but not all, offer same-day treatment for eye care emergencies.
Visiting a hospital emergency room (ER) is another care option for an acute eye emergency. This is a good choice when an eye doctor is not available or someone has suffered an acute injury that might require surgery.
Depending on the ER, there may or may not be an ophthalmologist at the hospital. If there is no ophthalmologist on site at the time of visit, most hospitals will have one on call whom they can contact in case of an emergency surgery.
Urgent care centers are a third option for emergency eye care. These are stand-alone clinics outside hospitals that can provide quick care.
The conditions assessed at urgent care centers are non-vision threatening and can include: redness, irritation, itching, discharge, a new bump or swelling on eyelid — chalazion or stye — or minor scratches.
These centers can be convenient but usually don't offer the same services as an ER or an ophthalmologist.
At urgent care, a patient will not be tended by an eye doctor or specialist. If a patient needs to see one, they will usually be referred elsewhere.
While each case differs, the following symptoms suggest a patient should seek immediate medical attention:
Sudden vision loss
Severe pain or swelling
Sudden onset double vision
Blunt force trauma to area around eyes
Cut or tear on the eyelid
Blood in the clear part of the eye
New onset of floaters or flashing lights
In addition to these symptoms, some specific scenarios constitute an ocular emergency.
Chemical burns or splashes are a common and serious eye emergency. The severity of the situation depends on the chemical, but even a minor splash poses the risk of long-term damage.
Burns may result in damage to the cornea and, in acute cases, cause permanent vision loss.
Because of these repercussions, if someone experiences a chemical burn or splash, they should seek immediate attention at an ER as this type of emergency may require surgery.
Eye trauma occurs when a patient receives a hit or blow to the eye. Eye trauma can range in severity from minor swelling in one eye to a more severe puncture that requires emergency eye care.
It is important to receive treatment for such eye injuries, as even a light blow can cause significant damage to the injured eye and may require emergency surgery.
For this reason, patients should treat all cases of eye trauma seriously. In scenarios involving a black eye, acute eye pain, severe swelling, or visual disturbance, patients should contact an ophthalmologist to be evaluated. If one is not available, it is recommended to go straight to the emergency room.
This eye injury occurs when flying material — often metal — lands in a patient's eye. This eye emergency is common amongst those working in construction, or operating tools and heavy machinery. It also includes objects like darts, bullets, bungee chords, or other sharp instruments.
If a foreign object enters an eye, do not touch or attempt to remove it. If you do not have any changes in your vision, you may contact your ophthalmologist to be evaluated as soon as possible.
If there are changes in your vision, or you have sustained trauma from sharp instruments causing damage to the adjacent structures, go straight to the emergency room.
Eye floaters are spots in one's vision that look like black specks or strings.
It is best to be evaluated as quickly as possible. Call your ophthalmologist for an appointment. If you have these symptoms along with changes in your vision and you are not able to contact an ophthalmologist, go to the emergency room.
While vision can vary, changes like blurred or double vision can signal more serious eye conditions that require emergency eye care.
When a patient experiences changes in their central or peripheral vision, we recommend scheduling an appointment with their eye doctor immediately.
In most cases, redness or irritation is not an eye care emergency. However, there is reason to be concerned if the redness is paired with blurred vision, light sensitivity, or pain.
These symptoms can be warning signs of uveitis, corneal abrasion, or herpes keratitis. If a patient experiences these symptoms, we recommend scheduling an appointment with an ophthalmologist as soon as possible.
Lastly, if you have a relationship with your ophthalmologist and have any doubts about your symptoms, it is best to contact them for advice on the urgency of evaluation and best location to be seen.
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