How long after death do eyes turn milky?

Quick Answer

Typically, a dead person’s eyes will begin to lose their color and turn milky within 2-3 hours after death. The timeframe can vary depending on factors like temperature and moisture, but generally corneal clouding starts soon after death and progresses over several hours.

What Causes Eyes to Turn Milky After Death?

Eyes turning milky or cloudy after death is caused by changes to the cornea – the clear outer layer of the eye. Here’s a look at what happens:

  • The cornea gets its transparency from epithelial cells that regulate fluid balance and allow light to pass through. After death, these cells begin breaking down.
  • With no blood circulation, the cornea starts losing moisture and becomes dehydrated. This causes it to lose its clear appearance.
  • Degradation of cells releases potassium into the cornea, which causes fluid shifts and electrolyte imbalances. This disrupts the organized structure of collagen fibers in the corneal stroma, making the cornea cloudy.
  • The clouding typically starts at the periphery and slowly spreads inwards over several hours.

The milky, opaque appearance of the corneas is the result of these processes destroying corneal transparency after death.

What Does the Timeframe Depend On?

While corneal clouding typically begins within 2-3 hours after death, several factors affect the timeframe:

  • Temperature – Warmer temperatures accelerate tissue breakdown, so corneal changes occur more rapidly.
  • Humidity – Moist environments slow the dehydration of the eyes, delaying the clouding.
  • Cause of death – Trauma, infections, or toxins can damage the cornea and speed the clouding process.
  • Health conditions – Certain diseases like diabetes can affect corneal tissues and chemistry, influencing the timeline.
  • Medications – Some drugs like diuretics, antihistamines, and tranquilizers can alter fluid balance and corneal changes after death.

Factors like refrigeration can significantly slow the deterioration process and delay the milky discoloration. But under normal conditions, the corneas will become opaque within 12-24 hours after death at the latest.

How Does Cloudiness Progress After Death?

The clouding of the corneas after death happens gradually over several hours. Here’s a typical timeline:

  • 1-2 hours after death – Early subtle clouding and discoloration becomes noticeable at the periphery of the corneas.
  • 3-6 hours after death – Cloudiness increases and spreads inwards across the corneas, giving them a glassy, frosted appearance.
  • 8-12 hours after death – Corneal transparency is significantly reduced as the stroma becomes swollen and disorganized. The entire surface of the corneas will appear milky.
  • 12-24 hours after death – The corneas become completely opaque and white all over, obscuring the colored irises underneath.

The eyes remain fixed in this position after turning solid milky white, which is one of the later stages of decomposition. The corneal haze cannot be reversed once fully set in.

Can Eyes Become Milky Before Death?

While milkiness most often occurs after death, in some cases eyes can take on a cloudy appearance while a person is still alive. This includes:

  • Cataracts – Clouding of the lens deep inside the eye, causing blurred vision.
  • Corneal edema – Fluid buildup in the cornea from eye trauma, infection, or disease.
  • Vitreous opacity – Changes to the gel inside the eyes, making it less transparent.
  • Eye infections – Inflammation and discharge can give the eyes a milky glaze.
  • Drug side effects – Some medications like amiodarone deposit in the cornea.

However, these types of opacity tend to affect distinct parts of the eye rather than the generalized clouding of both corneas after death. The milkiness seen post-mortem has a distinct appearance.

Putrefaction and Liquefaction

The initial clouding of the eyes is followed by more severe decomposition changes during putrefaction:

  • After 24 hours, the corneas may shrivel or collapse as fluid leaks from the eyes.
  • Bacterial activity and autolysis cause the eyes to deflate and sink into the sockets.
  • The insides of the eyes liquefy into a proteinaceous fluid that may leak from the orifices.
  • Eventually the eyes shrivel into an unrecognizable mass as putrefaction progresses.

So the milky discoloration of the corneas is one of the earliest visual indicators of decomposition, preceding the more destructive effects of putrefaction and liquefaction.

Forensic Importance

The time it takes for the eyes to develop the classic cloudy, frosted appearance of death can provide useful forensic information:

  • The degree of corneal clouding can help estimate a post-mortem interval by correlating it with ambient temperature and other factors.
  • Differences between the eyes may indicate the person died from a head injury or other trauma.
  • Absent or slowed clouding could suggest evidence tampering, refrigeration, or other unnatural processes.
  • It can help determine whether the eyes are consistent with the expected timeframe or if the body has been moved or preserved.

Overall, the milky discoloration of the eyes is a helpful investigative marker for forensic pathologists and coroners when determining time and cause of death.

Other Post-Mortem Eye Changes

Aside from the characteristic cloudiness, some other noteworthy eye alterations occur after death:

  • Skin slippage – The mucosa detaches from the eye surface.
  • Sunken eyeballs – Dehydration causes the eyes to recess into the sockets.
  • Red spots – Broken blood vessels create red discoloration on the sclera.
  • Dryness – The tear film deteriorates without blinking to moisten the eyes.
  • Pupil dilation – Loss of muscle tone causes the pupils to dilate fully.
  • Haze – Mucus and inflammatory cells can create a hazy film over the eyes.

While the opaque, frosted corneas are the most characteristic finding, forensic examiners take note of any eye abnormalities that could be informative.

Can the Process Be Reversed?

Unfortunately, there is no way to reverse the milky discoloration of the eyes after death. Some key reasons for this include:

  • The changes are due to irreversible structural damage and biochemical alterations in the cornea.
  • Fluid and electrolyte shifts cannot be corrected once stabilized after death.
  • Corneal hydration and transparency cannot be restored without functioning cells and blood circulation.
  • The degeneration processes will continue to progress until the eyes liquefy.

While clouded corneas can sometimes be cleared up in living patients, the corneal changes seen after death are permanent. The milky opacity will persist and intensify over time.

Delaying or Obscuring Cloudiness

There are some techniques that can potentially buy some time before the eyes turn cloudy after death:

  • Cooling the body slows chemical processes and delays the clouding.
  • Embalming with optically clear fluids can temporarily give the corneas a glassy appearance.
  • Eye caps placed under the eyelids can hold the shape for viewing.
  • Taping the eyelids closed obscures the eyes from view.
  • Restoring eye moisture with drops or gels can temporarily improve clarity.

However, these are mostly cosmetic measures that cannot prevent the inevitable. Once physiological processes have ceased, the corneas will lose transparency on a cellular level regardless of intervention.

Timeframes in Other Animals

While the usual timeframe relates to human eyes, other animals also develop corneal cloudiness after death:

  • Dogs – Milkiness visible from around 3-6 hours.
  • Cats – Clouding from approximately 2-4 hours.
  • Cattle – Eyes begin turning opaque from 1-3 hours post-mortem.
  • Sheep – Corneal changes start about 2-4 hours after death.
  • Pigs – Eyes take on a frosty look around 3-5 hours after death.

The process follows a similar timeline across various species, though temperature and other factors can create some variability. But the distinctive opaque appearance eventually occurs due to the same physiological processes in all animals.


In summary, the characteristic milkiness of the eyes is one of the more reliable early signs of death. The corneas become clouded and frosted in appearance within 2-3 hours as the clear cells deteriorate, and will progress to complete opacity over 12-24 hours. Though various techniques may temporarily restore clarity or delay the inevitable changes, the process cannot be reversed once it has started. The milky gray eyes can provide useful forensic insights for investigators determining time and manner of death.

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