Hesperian Health Guides

Problems with the Eyes and Seeing

HealthWiki > New Where There Is No Doctor > Problems with the Eyes and Seeing

In this chapter:

Basic Care for Eyes

Keeping the face and the area around the eyes clean and protected from too much sun, wind, and injury will prevent many common problems that harm eyes or make them irritated, red, or painful. Eating nutritious food also prevents many eye problems.

Injuries can damage vision or cause blindness. Act quickly: go to the closest hospital or health clinic for a serious eye injury or for danger signs. They can help you find an eye specialist if one is needed.

When far away or very close objects are difficult to see, the right kind of eyeglasses often helps people see much better. Because vision changes over time, you may need new eyeglasses every so often.

For adults, cataracts and glaucoma are common causes of vision loss that can lead to blindness. Treatment can help restore vision or stop it from getting worse. Knowing about the eye and its parts will help you keep the eyes healthy and take care of eye problems.


 parts of the eye
The tear gland produces tears
Eye lashes
The pupil is the black part
The iris is the part with color
The tear duct is a tube that drains the tears into the nose
The cornea is the clear (transparent) layer that covers the iris and the pupil
The conjunctiva is the thin layer that covers the white part of the eye
A lens is round, clear, and inside the eye and is needed to focus light for seeing
NWTND eye Page 2-1.png

When eyes are healthy:

  • The eyelids open and shut easily and the eye lashes curve outward, not in toward the eye.
  • The white part is all white, smooth, and moist.
  • The cornea, the clear covering of the iris and pupil, is shiny, smooth and transparent.
  • The pupil is black and round. This black part reacts to more or less light by becoming smaller or bigger.
 person washing hands with soap using a homemade water spout.

Keep the eyes clean

To help prevent many eye problems, wash your face often. This keeps dirt and germs from getting in the eye and causing problems.

You do not need a lot of water to wash the face. You can make a Tippy-Tap from a clean plastic bottle or container. Let the air dry your face and hands to avoid infections from sharing cloth or towels.

 woman cleaning child’s eye with cloth

When eyes are infected, clean them often with a clean cloth and clean water. Wipe gently from the corner of the eye nearest to the nose outward to the corner of the eye by the ear. Use a different part of the cloth to clean each eye and then wash the cloth well and dry it before you use it again.

Wash your hands with soap before and after cleaning eyes that are infected to prevent spreading infection.

How to remove dirt or an eyelash from the eye

 child using a cloth to wipe away tears from her eye
Something trapped under the eyelid can scratch or scrape your eye, so do not rub the eye. Tears can help wash it out.

Have the person close her eyes and move her eyes around from side to side, and up and down. Then, while you hold her eyelid open, have her look up and down again. This makes the eye produce tears that often wash out the dirt. Another way of making tears is to gently rub the good eye. This produces tears in both eyes. Do not rub the sore eye.

Or you can try to remove the bit of dirt or eyelash with clean water. Use only clean water, not any other liquid. Hold the eye open while rinsing with water from a cup (or by gently squirting water with a clean syringe and no needle). The person can lie down or tilt her head back while you pour water so it runs from the inside (near the nose) to the outside of the eye (near the ear).

If you can see it, the bit of dirt can be gently removed with the corner of a damp, clean cloth, tissue, or cotton swab.

When dirt is under the upper eyelid, you may only be able to see it by turning the upper eyelid over a cotton swab. Ask the person to look down while you do this.

 how to turn over the upper eyelid
Remove the eyelash or bit of dirt with the corner of a clean cloth, tissue, or cotton swab. Always move the dirt away from the eye.

If you cannot get the dirt out easily, put a small amount of antibiotic eye ointment where the irritation is felt, protect the eye, and send the person for medical help.

Workplace dangers, pollution, and sun harm eyes

Chemicals, air and water pollution, and the strong rays in sunlight (called ultraviolet or UV rays) can irritate the eyes and cause problems. At home or at work, eyes can be injured by many things, or burned by chemicals.

  • Cooking: smoke from cooking fires and stoves irritates and dries the eyes. This affects women and children most.
  • Air pollution: dust and chemicals in the air affect the eyes of everyone who works or plays outside, especially children.
  • Water pollution: chemicals from factories or mines, pesticides, and sewage are released into rivers or lakes, irritating the eyes and skin of people who bathe or wash clothes there.
  • Agriculture: tools, dirt, rocks, tree branches, poisonous plants, chemical fertilizers and pesticides can all damage the eyes.
  • Outside: sun, dust, and wind can irritate the eyes.
  • Riding a motorcycle without protecting eyes can lead to eye injury.
  • Chemicals: factory workers, farmers, miners, janitors, domestic workers and others use chemicals. If chemicals touch the eye, they can burn it very quickly.
  • Machines or equipment: pieces of metal or wood can break off and injure the eye, as can high heat, sparks, or flames.
  • Office and factory workers: having to focus the eyes on one task for many hours strains the eyes.

Safety glasses and goggles protect eyes from injury
All glasses help protect eyes. Use safety glasses or safety goggles when using machines or power tools, riding a motorcycle, or if you are working with pesticides or other chemicals.

 worker protecting her eyes and face while using heavy machinery
NWTND eye Page 4-2.png
For more on protecting eyes in the workplace, see Hesperian’s Workers' Guide to Health and Safety.
 women wearing hats while working outside
 woman working at a computer

Hats and sunglasses protect eyes from sun
People outside in strong sunlight can protect their eyes by wearing a hat and, if possible, dark glasses. Glasses that are made to screen out UV (ultraviolet) sun rays are best. Protection from the sun may slow the advance of some types of cataracts. Even after many years of too much sun, using hats and sunglasses may prevent eye problems from getting worse.

Avoid eye strain
Working where there is not enough light, looking at the screen of your computer or mobile phone all the time, or focusing your eyes for many hours on something close is hard on the eyes. Reduce eye strain by improving lighting and regularly looking away at something across the room. Older workers may need reading glasses for close-up work.

NWTND eye Page 5-3.png
First look at something close to you.
NWTND eye Page 5-4.png
Then look away to something about 3 to 4 meters away for 20 seconds.
Do this a few times each hour. Also, it helps to move your eyes around: keep your head still and move your eyes to look up one wall, around the ceiling, and down the other wall.

Care for the eyes with good food

 woman running away from salty, processed food and soda
Save your money for nutritious foods and keep away the salt and sugar. The chapter Good Food Makes Good Health has ideas on how to eat well even when you have little money.

Many foods that help the body stay healthy also help people have good vision. Foods especially good for eye health include:

  • Vegetables: leafy greens, pepper, peas, beans, sweet potato, carrot, and pumpkin
  • Fruits: mango, papaya, orange, and avocado
  • Fish, nuts, and whole grains

Eating nutritious foods during pregnancy helps the developing baby’s eyes. Breastfeeding babies and making sure young children eat green and orange vegetables and fruits can prevent vitamin A deficiency.

Health workers and community eye health

Dealing with eye emergencies is unfortunately common for health workers and health promoters, but everyday eye and vision problems may not be. When health workers learn to recognize early signs of eye problems, they can help people improve their vision and prevent people from losing their sight.

  • Learn to look for redness, swelling, itching, or gray spots in the eyes when you see patients – and what each sign means and how to treat it.
  • Make it easier for women to receive eye exams and eye treatment. Their work and family roles make them more likely to suffer eye problems.
  • Help people know what home remedies and commercial products might be dangerous for the eye and not to spend money on false cures.
  • Organize a yearly vision check for children at school and train teachers to recognize signs of eye problems, especially poor vision.
  • Refer older people for treatment if they have cataracts.
  • Help people over the age of 40 get reading glasses if they need them.
  • Make your community a safe place for people who are blind.

Health workers can also share information on programs and eye hospitals that offer low-cost or free care for eye problems and emergencies. Organize community members to get vision testing, eyeglasses, and cataract surgery at not-for-profit and government organized events.

Common eye problems by age:
Babies’ eye infections need to be treated. Some of these are prevented by cleaning the baby’s eyes and using eye ointment at birth.

Young children’s vision problems may be hard to notice. Starting at 6 months old, see if the child’s eyes move and follow a light or a toy when you move it around. A child with a wandering or crossed eye can be helped and glasses may help with poor vision. For children with very limited or no vision, Hesperian’s book Helping Children Who Are Blind shows many ways to help a blind child develop her skills.

School-age children who cannot see clearly cannot tell you they need eyeglasses because they do not know what good vision would be like. A child who has headaches, squints a lot or is having difficulty in school or playing games may have a vision problem and need eyeglasses. It is also a good idea to learn what to do if there is an eye injury from sports or fighting at school.

Any child can get eye injuries. Keep chemicals and sharp objects locked away and out of reach of children.

Adult vision may change at any age and sometimes eyeglasses can help. If a person has diabetes or high blood pressure, treatment to manage these problems will help prevent further harm to the eyes. Different kinds of work make some eye injuries or eye conditions more likely.

Older adults are more likely to develop cataracts and need reading glasses.

 teacher speaking with a mother and her child
Chen is doing so well now that he sits up close. We didn’t realize his problems with schoolwork were because he needs glasses. Next week he will get his first pair!

This page was updated:05 Jan 2024