Sub-tarsal foreign body (STFB)

The CMGs are guidelines on the diagnosis and management of a range of common and rare, but important, eye conditions that present with varying frequency in primary and first contact care.

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Patient may give history of foreign body entering eye

  • particle falling into eye (rust while working under car, DIY debris)
  • wind blown from unknown source

Predisposing factors

Lack of suitable eye protection


Foreign body sensation / acute pain
Red eye


Possible fluorescein staining of cornea

  • foreign body tracks, often vertical

Embedded material on tarsal conjunctival surface

Differential diagnosis

Dendritic ulcer
Corneal abrasion (e.g. from contact lens)
Superficial punctate keratopathy of another cause
NB: check cornea for adherent/embedded material

Management by optometrist

Practitioners should recognise their limitations and where necessary seek further advice or refer the patient elsewhere

Non pharmacological

Evert upper eyelid

Remove foreign body, after instillation of topical anaesthetic, with:

  • saline irrigation
  • saline-wetted cotton bud (can also be used to sweep the fornix)
  • sterile hypodermic needle if cannot be dislodged by cotton bud

(GRADE*: Level of evidence=low, Strength of recommendation=strong)

Advise patient to return/seek further help if symptoms persist
Advise on future suitable eye protection
(GRADE*: Level of evidence=low, Strength of recommendation=strong)


Local anaesthetic (e.g. g. oxybuprocaine 0.4%) to aid examination and removal of foreign body

(GRADE*: Level of evidence=low, Strength of recommendation=strong)

After removal, prescribe tear supplements / lubricants for symptomatic relief

(GRADE*: Level of evidence=low, Strength of recommendation=strong)

Consider prophylactic antibiotic (e.g. course of chloramphenicol drops/ointment for not less than 5 days) if there is substantial epithelial loss or foreign matter contamination of the conjunctival sac (see Clinical Management Guideline on Corneal Abrasion)

(GRADE*: Level of evidence=low, Strength of recommendation=weak)

Management category

B3: Management (including drugs) to resolution. Normally no referral.

Possible management by ophthalmologist

(Normally no referral)

Evidence base

*GRADE: Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation (

Sources of evidence

Eye trauma. 2018 BMJ Best Practice

Plain language summary

Sometimes a speck of dust or other debris, landing on the eye, becomes trapped under the upper eyelid. While there it may cause discomfort which increases on blinking when the foreign body is rubbed over the eye surface. Usually the patient will know that something has blown into the eye.

The optometrist will turn the upper eyelid over and, if a foreign body is found, remove it. Sometimes a drop of local anaesthetic is needed to reduce the discomfort of this procedure. Generally, no further treatment is needed, but if there is a large abrasion of the surface of the cornea (the clear window at the front of the eye) or any evidence of infection, a course of local antibiotic drops or ointment may be prescribed. Such cases are not usually referred to the ophthalmologist.

Sub-tarsal foreign body (STFB)
Version 11
Date of search 21.10.19 
Date of revision 24.10.19
Date of publication 23.04.21
Date for review 20.10.21
© College of Optometrists

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