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JAMA Patient Page
August 15, 2017

Eye Emergencies

JAMA. 2017;318(7):676. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.9899

Any sudden problem with the eye or change in vision requires prompt medical attention.

Vision is a complex process that involves many different parts of the eye. Light first passes through an outer layer of the eye called the cornea, next travels through an opening in the eye called the pupil, and then passes through the lens of the eye. The colored part of the eye, called the iris, has muscles that control the size of the pupil. Like the lens of a camera, these parts of the eye help focus and control the amount of light that enters the eye. The retina, lining the inside back wall of the eye, has cells that are sensitive to light and acts like the light-sensitive back of a camera, where the visual images first begin to be detected or “developed.” Information from the retina eventually reaches the brain, where it is further processed and understood.

Common Eye Emergencies

Various injuries or conditions can damage the eye, and the following conditions are emergencies that require immediate medical treatment:

  • Trauma to the eye can include cuts or scrapes on the cornea or other outside layers of the eye, puncture wounds, or the presence of foreign objects in the eye. Symptoms may include eye pain, redness, and vision loss.

  • Acute glaucoma is a sudden increase in the pressure of the fluid inside the eye. Symptoms often include eye pain, eye redness, nausea and vomiting, and vision changes.

  • Retinal detachment occurs when the retina pulls away from its usual position at the back of the eye. This often causes flashing lights or small specks called floaters in the field of vision and can also lead to vision loss.

  • Retinal artery occlusion or retinal vein occlusion is a blockage of the vessels that take blood to and from the retina. Painless vision loss is the most common symptom.

  • Exposure of the eye to chemicals in the form of liquids, fumes, or aerosols can cause symptoms such as eye pain and redness, tearing, and decreased vision.


Eye emergencies require urgent medical attention, especially from an ophthalmologist, a medical doctor who specializes in the eyes. An eye examination typically consists of vision tests, assessment of eye movements, and the use of eye drops and specialized equipment to examine various parts of the eye and the pressure within the eye.

Treatment and When to Seek Help

Treatment of an eye emergency depends on the specific cause and may include eye drops, medications, or surgery. In any of the following situations, treatment from a medical professional should be sought right away:

  • A cut, scratch, or puncture wound to the eye

  • Sudden vision loss or other vision changes such as flashing lights or floaters, even if they are temporary or only affect part of the visual field

  • Unexplained eye pain and redness

  • Nausea, vomiting, or headache that occur with eye pain

  • Exposure of the eye to chemicals

  • Concern that an object is stuck in the eye

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For More Information

To find this and other JAMA Patient Pages, go to the For Patients collection at jamanetworkpatientpages.com.

The JAMA Patient Page is a public service of JAMA. The information and recommendations appearing on this page are appropriate in most instances, but they are not a substitute for medical diagnosis. For specific information concerning your personal medical condition, JAMA suggests that you consult your physician. This page may be photocopied noncommercially by physicians and other health care professionals to share with patients. To purchase bulk reprints, call 312/464-0776.
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Article Information

Sources: American Academy of Ophthalmology, National Library of Medicine, Merck Manual

Topic: Ophthalmology