Although precise figures aren't available on how many of these injuries occur each year, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) says the problem is common enough to warrant greater awareness of the risk.
"We see some nasty eye injuries related to champagne corks, unfortunately, every New Year's," says Dr. Anne Sumers, an AAO spokeswoman and team ophthalmologist for the New York Giants and New Jersey Nets pro sports teams.Sumers says one reason eyes are particularly vulnerable to corks is because the larger bones of the face, such as the cheek bones, can protect against injury from larger objects, like a basketball. But corks can shoot right into the eye sockets.
And the warmer the bottle of champagne, the greater the force propelling the cork.
"If you really want to have a 'We just won the World Series!' kind of pop, then a warm bottle of champagne will give you that," says Sumers.
She says a typical New Year's Eve scenario goes something like this: The party's in full swing, the two or three bottles of chilled champagne that fit in the fridge have been consumed, and then someone will break out a warm bottle from a shelf.
"All of the previous bottles opened normally. [But] when you loosen the cap for the bottle that wasn't chilled, the cork shoots out, hits someone in the eye and the party comes to an abrupt halt," she says.
Though the cork may strike the front of the eye, the damage can devastate the entire eye structure, explains Dr. Joseph Kubacki, chairman of the department of ophthalmology at Temple University in Philadelphia.
"The eye is mostly water. And just like the ripple effect that occurs when you drop a stone in water, a shock wave is transmitted through the eye when it's hit with a sudden force," he says.
"When that happens, the delicate structures in the eye can be torn, ripped or bleed," he says. "Problems that can be sustained include a corneal abrasion, a hemorrhage in the eye, you could dislocate the lens, develop a tear in the iris and even have a retinal detachment."
"The injuries aren't life-threatening, but they can certainly be vision-threatening," Kubacki adds.
If someone does take a cork in an eye, Sumers says it's important not to try to treat or bandage the eye. Just get to an emergency room.
"There's no good first aid," she says. "Don't try eye drops or put gauze on the eye. If it's hit hard and the person's having trouble seeing or is in pain, you need to get to an emergency room because you can rupture the eyeball itself if you put any pressure on it."
Other precautions to take before opening a champagne bottle include holding a towel over the cork when opening it, and pointing the bottle away from any people in the room, Kubacki says.
"Even before you take the wiring off the bottle, point the bottle away from yourself and others because it's not inconceivable that the cork could pop if the bottle has been shaken or is too warm," he says.
The AAO offers these additional tips when breaking out the bubbly:
- Hold the cork down with the palm of your hand while you untwist the wire hood.
- Place a towel over the top and tilt the bottle at a 45-degree angle. Slowly and firmly, twist the cork to break the seal.
- Keep the bottle at the 45-degree angle while holding it firmly with one hand; use the other hand to slowly turn the cork with a slight upward pull.
- Counter the force of the cork by applying slight downward pressure just as the cork breaks free from the bottle.
What to Do: Visit the Medem Medical Library, where the American Academy of Ophthalmology offers a variety of fact sheets on eye safety. And here's a fun site with lots of details about wine corks. Use what you learn to impress your friends on New Year's Eve.