Definition and Overview

An eye emergency visit is an urgent consultation with an eye specialist such as an optometrist or an ophthalmologist with the goal to obtain immediate treatment.

Although not all types of eye emergencies require hospitalization or surgery, immediate attention is sought as various eye conditions may:

  • Lead to constant bleeding – This is especially dangerous for people who have blood disorders.
  • Indicate a more serious or even a life-threatening disease
  • Be caused by a pathogen, which means there’s a good chance the condition, such as an infection, can spread. An example is sore eyes.
  • Affect the person’s ability to see – This is the case when something obstructs the vision or damages any part of the eye’s structure
  • Limit the person’s mobility as well as number and level of physical activity
  • Cause intense distress to the patient
    Different eye doctors can take a look and eventually treat these emergency situations. An optometrist, also known as an ophthalmic technician, can offer basic eye care with a special focus on refractive errors. The scope of his practice depends on the law of the state, although all of them must be board certified and completed four years of college and another four years of optometry education.

Ophthalmologists, on the other hand, have more extensive eye training and are therefore capable of dealing with more serious and complex emergencies. Many of them also have fellowship in surgery and specific eye subspecialties such as diseases that affect the cornea or retina.

Who Should Undergo and Expected Results

An eye emergency visit is a must in the following cases:

  • Traumatic injuries that affect the eyes – These are typically indicated by eye redness, swelling, tenderness of the eyes and the surrounding areas and sometimes bulging eyes. In certain cases, one or both eyes may not move and persistent eye pain is observed.

  • Exposure to chemicals and other irritants – This happens when the eyes come into contact with harsh chemicals and other irritants that may potentially damage the organ’s structure especially the cornea, which is one of the outermost layers of the organ. The most common symptom is a burning or stinging sensation.

  • Exposure to possibly contaminated fluid – These include blood or saliva that have come from an infected person.
  • Symptoms are progressing very rapidly – This takes place when the eye condition is caused by an infection or a worsening disease.
    Other cases where an eye emergency visit is in order include:

  • The presence of foreign object in the eyes

  • Eye problems caused by allergies
  • Vision changes (e.g., blurry vision)
  • Headaches, dizziness and fainting spells that are linked to eye problems
  • Stuck contact lenses
  • Sensitivity to sunlight
  • Damaged prescription or reading glasses

How Does the Procedure Work?

Patients who have eye emergencies often don’t need to schedule appointments, but they are advised to call ahead to make sure that a doctor is available or that they may be instructed on how to prepare for the visit. A staff, paramedic, or nurse may help the patient improve the eye condition through first aid or first response treatment.

In an emergency eye consultation, an experienced emergency eye doctor is expected to:

  • Immediately determine the concern of the patient
  • Check the signs and symptoms of the eye condition
  • Ask essential questions about the patient’s medical and family history as well as lifestyle
  • Request for eye exams
  • Recommend the best form of treatment that can be applied quickly (the treatment is based on many factors such as the cause of the problem, age, preexisting condition and available doctors and facilities)
    Once immediate risks have been addressed or the condition has improved, the eye specialist will conduct a more thorough investigation to come up with an official diagnosis, which will help him decide if the initial treatment is enough or if it needs to be adjusted or changed. Depending on the condition and its severity, the patient may have to stay in the hospital overnight, for a few days, or be discharged within the day.

Possible Risks and Complications

Not all types of eye emergencies may present serious symptoms, which means the patient may fail to have his eyes checked promptly. Also, some ophthalmologists or optometrists are not properly trained in dealing with emergencies, and this can lead to errors during treatment and diagnosis. Some patients may also wait to see an ophthalmologist when a number of these emergencies can actually be handled by an optometrist.

References:

  • Bhatia K, Sharma R. Eye emergencies. In: Adams JG, ed. Emergency Medicine: Clinical Essentials. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2013:chap 26.

  • Engel K, Page M, Montezuma S, Cameron JD. Surgical and nonsurgical trauma. In: Tasman W, Jaeger EA, eds. Duane's Foundations of Clinical Ophthalmology. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins; 2013:vol. 3, chap 6.

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