If you’ve noticed some pain, swelling, itching, or redness in your eye, you likely have an eye infection. Eye infections fall into three specific categories based on their cause: viral, bacterial, or fungal, and each is treated differently.
The good news is eye infections aren’t hard to spot, so you can seek treatment quickly. Many eye infections go away on their own or with simple treatment. Less commonly, an eye infection can be very serious and require immediate medical attention.
Anytime you suspect an eye infection, you should always visit an eye doctor. Trying to self-diagnose your condition can delay treatment and, in rare cases, even threaten your vision. Here’s everything you need to know about the most common eye infections so you can figure out the cause and what to do about it.
Common Types of Eye Infections
- Conjunctivitis – or pink eye, is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the clear mucous membrane that covers the white part of the eyeball and the inside of the eyelid. It is the most common eye infection in the United States.
- Keratitis – also known as “corneal ulcer,” is an inflammation of the cornea – the clear, dome shaped window located at the front of the eye that covers the iris and pupil. Keratitis resulting from infections (called infectious keratitis) can be caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites.
- Uveitis – is inflammation of the uvea, which is the middle layer of the eyeball that contains the iris.
- Thyroid Eye Disease – (TED), sometimes called Graves’ ophthalmopathy or Graves’ Eye Disease, is a condition in which the eye muscles, eyelids, tear glands and fatty tissues behind the eye become inflamed.It occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the tissue surrounding the eye causing inflammation in the tissues around and behind the eye. In most patients, the same autoimmune condition that causes TED also affects the thyroid gland, resulting in Graves’ disease.
- Blepharitis – is inflammation of the eyelids. Causes include bacterial infection, allergies, clogged oil glands in the eyelids, and certain skin conditions. There are two main types of blepharitis:
- Anterior blepharitis: This affects the eyelash area, and dandruff or bacteria can be the cause.
- Posterior blepharitis: This affects the inner eyelid. Problems with the oil glands in the eyelids can cause this type. Other causes include acne, rosacea, and seborrheic dermatitis.
- Stye & Chalazion – are caused by blocked oil glands on the eyelid. They usually go away on their own, without threatening your sight or overall ocular health. However, if your stye or chalazion does not clear up by itself, or if it is causing you significant discomfort, you may need medical treatment. Our doctors are ready to provide effective treatment, usually starting with antibiotic medication. If you require further care, you may benefit from minor surgery to remove or lance the blockage. Our doctors use gentle, precise techniques to minimize your discomfort during these simple procedures.
- Endophthalmitis – is an infection of the tissues or fluids inside the eyeball. It is an urgent medical emergency. If you have symptoms, see an ophthalmologist as soon as possible. Endophthalmitis can blind you if it’s not treated quickly. There are two main types of endophthalmitis:
- Exogenous Endophthalmitis – This is the most common type of endophthalmitis. With this type, the source of the infection comes from outside the body. Bacteria or fungi get inside the eye from surgery, an injection into the eyeball or an eye injury.
- Endogenous Endophthalmitis – This is the second main type of endophthalmitis. It starts as an infection in another part of the body and spreads to the eye.
When to See an Eye Doctor
Some eye infections, such as a stye or blepharitis, respond well to home care. However, other eye infections, such as endophthalmitis, are serious and can potentially lead to a permanent loss of vision. If a person has signs of an eye infection, they should contact a doctor. Severe symptoms, such as extreme pain or a sudden loss of vision, require emergency medical care.
Likewise, if symptoms of a stye, blepharitis, or conjunctivitis fail to improve with home care, people should see a doctor. Diagnosis and treatment of inflammatory eye diseases are important. They can cause permanent damage to the eyes and vision loss that cannot be reversed. If you notice any of the signs or symptoms of inflammatory eye disease, make an appointment to see your eye doctor right away for a complete eye exam. At a complete eye exam, the eye care professional will do a thorough examination of the eyes.
Eye injections and cataract surgery are two of the most frequent eye procedures that cause endophthalmitis, though it is not common. If you do have these symptoms, see your ophthalmologist right away. The infection can get worse very quickly.
How to Prevent Eye Infections
If you’re close to a person with one or two red eyes, avoid touching the area around your eyes until you can wash your hands first. Prevent eye infections by washing your hands before touching your eyes or eyelids and before handling contact lenses. You can also minimize the risk of catching common bacterial or viral eye infections by using anti-infective sprays and cleansers in public areas, including day care centers and classrooms.
In general, it’s good to teach children to avoid touching their eyes without washing their hands first.
At home, if any family members have a red eye or a confirmed eye infection:
- Keep their bedding and towels clean
- Don’t let them share these items with anyone else
- Have them wash their hands often
If you wear contact lenses, follow the safety tips for good hygiene, including washing your hands before you touch your contacts.
Stay aware that sleeping while wearing contacts, even “breathable” silicone hydrogel contact lenses approved for overnight wear, can significantly increase your risk of eye infection.