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  • Eye Safety During Protests

    Reviewed By Ravi D Goel, MD
    Published Apr. 03, 2024

    Protesters who take to the streets may come under fire from rubber bullets, projectiles, tear gas, pepper spray or paintball guns. Projectiles such as rubber bullets may not be lethal, but they can seriously injure eyes and even lead to blindness. Worldwide, severe eye injuries from rioting and urban warfare are on the rise.

    If you are planning to join a protest, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends bringing eye protection with you in the event that a peaceful demonstration turns violent. Proper eyewear may help prevent possible injury from rubber bullets and other projectiles. But keep in mind that goggles, safety glasses and other protective eyewear do not always provide 100% protection. If your eye is injured, it’s a medical emergency. You must protect that eye immediately!

    What to do if your eye is injured by a rubber bullet or other projectile:

    • Don’t touch your eye.
    • Don’t rub your eye.
    • Stay upright and keep your head up.
    • Place a hard shield around your eye. Holding or taping a temporary eye shield, such as a paper cup or Styrofoam cup, may work in an emergency. Do not let the shield touch the surface of the eye.
    • If the eye ruptures or breaks open, the eye’s contents must be saved. Keep the shield on your eye and get to an emergency room or call your ophthalmologist immediately. You might also call ahead to the emergency room to make sure an ophthalmologist is working in the hospital or on call.

    In addition to rubber bullets, crowds of demonstrators may be hit with tear gas or pepper spray. Tear gas can cause serious eye injuries, including hyphema, uveitis, secondary glaucoma, cataractstraumatic optic neuropathy and vision loss. Goggles and other eye protection might help avoid exposure to tear gas, but they don’t provide 100% protection.

    If you are exposed to tear gas, take the following steps right away:

    • Get away from the tear-gassed area as quickly and safely as possible.
    • Flush your eyes with lots of clean water or eyewash (available at most pharmacies).
    • Remove any clothing near your face.
    • Seek fresh air.
    • Seek higher ground (tear gas is heavier than air).
    • Blink frequently to promote tearing.
    • Do not rub your eyes (rubbing might spread crystals of the chemical on the eye’s surface).
    • Remove your contact lenses.
    • Get medical help right away.

    If you are exposed to pepper spray:

    • Don’t touch the eye area. Pepper spray is oil-based, so touching the area will spread the oil.
    • Blink frequently to help flush your eyes.
    • Flush your eyes with lots of clean water or eyewash (available at most pharmacies). Contrary to what you may have heard, milk is not recommended for flushing the eyes because it’s not sterile. A small study compared five treatments (Maalox, 2% lidocaine gel, baby shampoo, milk, water) and found no difference in pain relief.
    • Wash the skin around your eyes with baby shampoo. This will break down the pepper oil without irritating the eyes.