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What Was That Smell During Lasik?

Some patients experience unpleasant order during Lasik, Bladeless Lasik, PRK, LASEK, or Epi-Lasik. It's not what you might think.

Image of microscopic plume of corneal tissue as cells are released by excimer laser energy.  
This image shows cells being rapidly released through a chemical reaction caused by the cold excimer laser used for Lasik. Although not burned, the reaction can cause the unpleasant smell of burning flesh.  

After completing conventional or wavefront custom Lasik, Bladeless Lasik, PRK, LASEK, Epi-Lasik, laser eye surgery, patients often exclaim, "I can see!", shortly followed by, "What was that smell?" The process of laser eye surgery can cause the disconcerting smell of burning flesh.

Cold Laser

The excimer laser is a "cold" laser and does not remove tissue with heat. The concentrated light frequency disrupts the molecular bonds that hold together the corneal cells. Without these bonds the cells escape in the form of a mushroom cloud that looks similar to an atomic bomb.

Cell Friction

As these cells rapidly move away from the cornea they strike each other causing a minor heat buildup from friction. That buildup can raise the temperature of the cornea to about 110°F (43°C), or around 11°F (6°C) above normal body temperature and very close to the water temperature of a nice warm hot tub. A second-degree burn threshold is skin temperature raised to 175°F (79°C). A third-degree burn threshold is skin temperature raised to 200°F (93°C).

Chemical Reaction, Not Heat

The smell, which is remarkably like the smell of burning flesh, is from the chemical reaction of the laser on the cornea, not from heat. Some surgeons use a special vacuum device surrounding the eye that removes these cells throughout the procedure so the source of the unpleasant smell is removed.  Even if it is only a chemical reaction via laser and not heat, nobody wants to experience what smells like their eye burning.

Looking For Best Lasik Surgeon?

If you are ready to choose a doctor to be evaluated for conventional or custom wavefront Lasik, Bladeless Lasik, PRK, or any refractive surgery procedure, we recommend you consider a doctor who has been evaluated and certified by the USAEyes nonprofit organization. Locate a USAEyes Evaluated & Certified Lasik Doctor.

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If this article did not fully answer your questions, use our free Ask Lasik Expert patient forum.

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