Cheers not tears: researchers warn against champagne cork injuries

Countless bottles of champagne will be popped in celebration this holiday season, but researchers are warning against a dark side of these bubbly beverages: cork-related eye injuries.

Researchers describe the very real potential for ocular trauma and offer practical tips to reduce the risks, in a feature in the Christmas issue of the journal BMJ.

“Cork eye injuries are an often overlooked and substantial threat to ocular health. Although our group usually publishes on the effects of spaceflight on the eye, this article focuses on the launch of sparkling wine corks instead of astronauts,” they write.

“The goal of this article is to ensure that you don’t begin the new year on the operating table of an eye surgeon.”

The physics of the pop

Inside a 750 ml sealed bottle of champagne or sparkling wine is carbon dioxide gas, released by yeast microbes, which can build up to a pressure about 3 times those found inside a standard car tire.

As the cork is loosened pressure forces it out at high speed. The resulting pop is actually a series of shockwaves as the high-pressure gases escape the bottle at supersonic speed, causing tiny sonic booms.

This miniature explosion can launch a cork up to 13 metres and at speeds of up to 80 km/h.

That’s so speedy that “a cork can travel from bottle to eye in less than 0.05 seconds, making the blinking reflex ineffective,” the researchers warn.

“A cork hitting an eye can cause permanent blindness, retinal detachment, and lens dislocation, among other conditions,” they say.

“After such an injury, personalised management from an eye care specialist is needed, and prompt consultation with an ophthalmologist is essential to minimise the risk of vision impairment.”

Their feature highlights several studies on the impact of cork related eye injuries, including a 2015 review that found that champagne corks were responsible for 71% of eye injuries related to bottle tops in Hungary, and 20% in the US.

The review also found that although many people’s sight improved, they still remained legally blind in 26% of cases related to pressurised drinks.

Pop your champagne safely, people!

The researchers offer some practical tips to reduce the risk of injury to people’s eyes during toasts, in line with guidance from the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

A figure outlining practical advice to reduce the risk of champagne cork related injuries
Practical advice to reduce the risk of champagne cork related injuries. Credit: BMJ 2023

This includes chilling the bottle before opening. Carbon dioxide is much less soluble at higher temperatures, which leads to a higher pressure inside the bottle and a faster launch speed.

And despite how much fun it looks, its best to avoid shaking the bottle before opening for the same reason.

They also suggest pointing the bottle at a 45-degree angle away from yourself and others, placing a towel over the top of the bottle, and counteracting the upward moving force of the cork by pressing down on it.

“Let us toast to an excellent new year, keep the bubbly in our glass, and the sparkle in our eyes,” the researchers conclude.

Sign up to our weekly newsletter

Please login to favourite this article.