When conjunctivitis results from a severe burn to the eye as a result of contact with certain irritants—such as bleach, acid, or any chemical—emergency care is required. Left untreated, a chemical burn can cause severe injury to the cornea and even vision loss.
If you have come into contact with a dangerous substance, rinse your eyes with copious amounts of water at home and then go to the emergency room. There, doctors can rinse the eyes with large amounts of a saline solution, a procedure known as eye irrigation.
Eye irrigation can take anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours, depending on the strength of the acid or alkaline chemical, the amount of exposure, and the pH, or the acidity level, in the eye. You are asked to lie on your back. While holding your eye open, a health care professional uses a thin tube to put saline solution into your eye so that it can clear out the toxic chemicals.
Before beginning irrigation, NYU Langone doctors take a baseline measurement of the pH level in your eye, which may be elevated or reduced due to the chemical exposure. Your doctor measures the pH periodically throughout irrigation to see if the level returns to normal.
Once the pH of your eye has been restored to normal, your doctor stops irrigation and may give you anti-inflammatory medications or pain relievers to treat the inflammation and make you more comfortable. A follow-up visit with your doctor may be required the next day to see how you are progressing.