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A foreign body sensation in the eye or just the feeling that a foreign body seems to be interfering with this sensitive organ are two different things. Numerous illnesses, inflammations or allergies can be the cause.
If the optic nerve is injured or inflamed, we perceive it, i.e. whether something would have entered the eye from outside. Diseases such as diabetes also affect the optic nerve and lead to the uncomfortable feeling.
Damage to the cornea from dirt also feels like a foreign body, as does conjunctivitis, which is caused by bacteria.
Too dry eyes and chemicals also trigger the foreign body sensation.
Cause: corneal inflammation
The cornea of the eye consists of several layers, the epithelium, the stroma and the endothelium. The epithelium is the outer layer. If it ignites, the surface of the cornea becomes gray. On the other hand, if the stroma is inflamed, it shows up as a white spot on the eye. When the inner layer, the endothelium, becomes inflamed, the cornea swells.
Some corneal infections are caused by bacteria. Those affected perceive light as unpleasant, the eyelid tightens, the conjunctiva becomes inflamed, the eyes redden, tear and separate watery liquid.
If the inner layers of the cornea are infected, ulcers sometimes form. These can lead to inflammation of the iris, and pus builds up in the eye chamber.
However, the feeling of having a foreign body in the eye arises especially when the cornea is infected by herpes viruses: the cornea hurts and the eyes become red.
If the eye is too dry, the eyes also become red. The feeling of having a foreign body in your eye is strong here - it feels like a grain of sand irritates the eye with every blink of the eye.
Unspecific eye irritation
Doctors speak of non-specific conjunctival and eye irritation when feeling foreign bodies in the eye.
External stimuli, and not basic diseases, are the most common trigger.
1) A foreign body feeling can arise from dust, cold, heat, sunlamps or ultraviolet light.
2) The eyes are often overworked, for example when we force ourselves to keep them open longer than is healthy, whether we drive a long car, work night shifts or suffer from a lack of sleep.
3) Some sufferers suffer from malposition of eyelashes and eyelids. The hairs and layers of skin now press on the sensitive cornea.
4) We also irritate the conjunctiva if we suffer from visual defects that remain without treatment.
If the eyes do not produce enough tears, then they dry out. Contact lenses are often the cause of this. Eye drops replace the tears.
Dry eyes become red, overly responsive to irritation, and itchy. Those affected feel as if a grain of sand has entered their eyes. If the eye does not regain fluid, the cornea can be injured.
Dry eyes can have various causes, working on the computer, contact lenses or medication - the list is long.
One of the most common triggers is dry air in the home when we heat in winter. If tobacco smoke is added, the flow of tears dries up.
Those who stare at the computer screen or read a lot at work often forget to blink. The reduced blink of the eye also means that the eye produces fewer tears.
Anti-baby pills, psychotropic drugs and sleeping pills are among the drugs that dry out the eyes.
Thyroid disorders and diabetes mellitus are also associated with dry eyes.
Menopausal women often complain of dry eyes. The cause here is the lack of estrogen, which causes the mucous membranes of the eyes to shrink and, as a result, less tear fluid covers the cornea and conjunctiva.
Eye drops with hyaluronic acid relieve the symptoms, i.e. the feeling of having foreign bodies in the eye, the itching and burning.
If there is no underlying disease, dry eyes can be easily prevented.
1) Smokers should regularly ventilate smoke-filled rooms and set up smoke-free rooms in their home.
2) Humidifiers, indoor plants and regular ventilation also help in heated rooms.
3) If you work on the computer, you can take an eye break every ten minutes, i.e. blink, look out of the window and thus relax the eye muscles.
4) Those who exercise a lot in the fresh air also prevent dry eyes.
5) Drinking lots of fruits and vegetables helps the eye to produce tears.
6) If you wear contact lenses, you should always remove them when your eyes dry out and also clean the lenses adequately and replace dirty lenses.
7) If you suffer from poor eyesight, you should have your eyesight and glasses checked regularly.
Diagnosis and treatment
The eye doctor is asked if you feel that you have a foreign body in your eye. The doctor asks the person concerned about the symptoms, possible basic diseases and the previous course.
Treatment depends on the cause. For example, if dirt is the cause of corneal inflammation, the doctor cleans the eye. Conjunctivitis, on the other hand, requires special drugs that fight the pathogens, including antibiotics.
If chemicals have entered the eye, clinical treatment is the order of the day. Many substances react to water and doctors have to wash them out with other solutions.
If the eyes are too dry, then special eye drops and eye ointments are recommended. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
Dr. phil. Utz Anhalt, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch
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- Gerhard K. Lang: Ophthalmology, Thieme, 2014
- M. Clausen; J. Roider; C. Fuhrmann; H. Laqua: "Stinging pain, conjunctival changes, foreign body sensation and one-sided red eye", in: Der Ophthalmologe, Volume 95 Issue 1, 1998, Springer
- Professional association of ophthalmologists in Germany (BVA): Augeninfo.de (accessed: 17.08.2019), first aid for the eye
- Nicole Schaenzler; Christoph Koppenwallner: Quickfinder Symptoms, Grafe and Unzer, 2007