Recurrent corneal erosion syndrome (RCES) is a painful eye condition most commonly seen in people who have a history of a scratch on the cornea (the clear window on the front surface of the eye).

Not everybody with a scratch will experience RCES, but people with scratches caused by the following have a higher incidence of RCES:

  • fingernails
  • plants
  • animal claws.

Occasionally RCES may be a feature of an inherited weakness of the corneal surface.

What causes RCES?

Although the exact cause of RCES is unknown, it is thought to be related to a disturbance in the special cells that stick down the surface of the cornea. The cells on the outermost layer of the cornea are similar to tiles on a floor. Imagine a floor where some of the tiles have lifted off due to faulty glue.

Similarly, when RCES occurs, newly formed cells of the cornea fail to stick securely to the layer beneath them. These new cells lift off more easily, as they do not attach firmly, resulting in a painful new wound to the old injury site.

Signs of an RCES episode

  • You will normally have a history of a scratch on your eye.
  • On waking in the morning, you may experience a sudden onset of a very painful, watery eye. This happens because on waking, the eyelids pull off weakened corneal cells.
  • Over time, you may experience more than one episode of RCES. It is recommended you see an eye health professional when symptoms occur and continue beyond one day.


  • Artificial tear drops and antibiotic eye drops or ointment (available over the counter at your pharmacy) will likely be recommended when there is a new episode of RCES.
  • Ongoing and preventative measures consist of lubricating the eye using artificial tear drops during the day and eye ointment at night.
  • Other treatments may be required. These will be explained by the treating ophthalmologist if required.
  • It is important to ensure you use lubricant eye ointment especially at night.

More information

If you are concerned that your eye condition is not improving or is getting worse please contact your GP or visit the Emergency Department at the Eye and Ear.





Disclaimer This document describes the generally accepted practice at the time of publication only. It is only a summary of clinical knowledge regarding this area. The Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital makes no warranty, express or implied, that the information contained in this document is comprehensive. They accept no responsibility for any consequence arising from inappropriate application of this information.

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  • Recurrent Corneal Erosion Syndrome (RCES) #22
  • Owner: Emergency Department
  • Last Reviewed: August 14, 2020
  • Next Review: August 14, 2023