Eye Infection

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is an eye infection?

An eye infection is a bacterial or viral infection of the eye or the tissue immediately surrounding the eye. Common eye infections include conjunctivitis, often called pink eye, which affects the membrane that lines the inside of your eyelids and covers the whites of the eyes, and blepharitis, which affects the eyelid margin. Although infections of the cornea, the clear “window” over the center of your eye, are not common, they can seriously affect your vision. The use of contact lenses contributes to eye infections if worn for extended periods or without proper cleaning.

Eye infections often cause redness, irritation, tearing and itchiness. Discharge from the eye and crusting of the eyelid margin are also common symptoms that may cause your eyelids and lashes to feel stuck together when you awaken. You may also experience eye pain and swelling of the tissues around the eye. These symptoms can also appear in allergies, and you may need to see your health care provider to determine whether you have an allergy or an infection.

Eye infections can affect one or both eyes, and they may occur at any age, though they are most common in children and young adults. Some eye infections are highly contagious, and you must take care not to infect other people, or even your other eye, if only one eye is infected. In some cases, allergies or irritation can cause symptoms similar to an eye infection. Additionally, eye allergies and eye irritation and can make it easier for you to get an eye infection.

Eye infections caused by viruses are generally mild and usually resolve on their own with a week or two. An exception is eye infection caused by herpes simplex virus, which can be a serious eye infection. Bacterial eye infections often require antibiotic treatment. Because a serious eye infection can affect vision, it is important to see a physician if your symptoms are severe or last longer than about two days. If you have any changes in vision, you should contact your health care provider immediately.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for an eye infection along with other serious symptoms, including visual changes, high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), severe headache, stiff neck, lethargy, and extreme sensitivity to light; if swelling around your eye is severe and restricts movement of your eye; or if eye symptoms occur along with constriction of the throat or difficulty breathing.

Seek prompt medical care if you have an eye infection that does not improve within a few days or if you are being treated for an eye infection but mild symptoms recur or are persistent.

What are the symptoms of an eye infection?

Symptoms of eye infection commonly include itching, redness, swelling, increased tearing, discharge from the eye, and crust formation around the eye. Symptoms often come on quickly and usually last for one to two weeks with viral infections. Symptoms of bacterial infections will usually clear sooner with antibiotic treatment. Eye infections can often occur in just one eye, but can quickly spread to the other eye.

Common symptoms of eye infections

You may experience all or just a few of these symptoms, and at times any of these symptoms can be severe. Symptoms include:

  • Burning feeling
  • Crusting on eyelid margins
  • Discharge from the eye
  • Eye pain
  • Eyelids or eyelashes stuck together when you awaken
  • Feeling of grittiness or sand in your eye
  • Increased sensitivity to light
  • Increased tear production
  • Itchy eyes
  • Red, sore eyes (bloodshot eyes)
  • Swelling of your eyelids and the skin around your eye

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, eye infections can be a serious condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. In addition, symptoms that appear to be caused by eye infections may be caused by anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these serious symptoms including:

What causes an eye infection?

Eye infections are almost always caused by either a virus or bacterial infection. Bacteria normally live on your skin, but irritation or a small injury in the eye can let the bacteria into areas where they do not usually reside, causing an infection.

You can also get an eye infection from a virus or from a type of bacteria that does not usually inhabit your skin. In these cases, you usually get the eye infection from another person by rubbing your eye after shaking hands or touching common objects after someone who is infected. You can also get an eye infection by sharing cosmetics, towels or pillows.

What are the risk factors for an eye infection?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing eye infections. Not all people with risk factors will get eye infections. Risk factors for infections include:

  • Allergies that inflame the eye

  • Contact lens wear, especially when used for extended periods or without proper cleaning and storage

  • Exposure to others with eye infections

  • Infection with a common cold

  • Irritation in the eyes

  • Use of shared cosmetics, personal care items, or linens

Reducing your risk of eye infections

Some eye infections are contagious and spread very easily. You can reduce your likelihood of catching or spreading eye infections by following good hygiene practices, including washing your hands frequently.

You may be able to lower your risk of eye infections by:

  • Avoiding close contact with people who have eye infections

  • Avoiding touching your eyes

  • Following your health care provider’s instructions on wearing, cleaning, and storing your contact lenses

  • Keeping your children home from school if they have an eye infection

  • Using disposable tissues rather than cloth handkerchiefs

  • Washing your hands often

How is an eye infection treated?

Treatment of your eye infection begins with seeking medical care from your health care provider. Treatment approaches used will depend on the type and severity of your eye infection. Viral eye infections generally resolve on their own. Bacterial eye infections often require antibiotics. In many cases, self-care measures and home treatments can make an eye infection less uncomfortable.

Symptomatic treatment for eye infections

Viral eye infections and very mild bacterial infections often resolve on their own. Often, self-care measures at home and over-the-counter medications will manage your symptoms. Treatments include:

  • Applying a cool compress on the eyelids several times a day for 10 to 15 minutes to help soothe itching, swelling or pain. Be sure to dispose of the compress after use to avoid spreading the infection.

  • Applying a warm, damp compress on the eyelids several times a day to help clear crusting on the eyelid margins

  • Using over-the-counter eye-drops or artificial tears may help soothe your eyes and relieve symptoms

Medical treatment for eye infections

If you have a bacterial eye infection that does not resolve quickly, your health care provider may prescribe antibiotic ointment or drops. Bacterial infections tend to lead to more discharge from the eye than viral infections do, but only your physician can determine what kind of eye infection you have. Be sure to use any antibiotic exactly as prescribed, and complete the entire treatment even if your eyes feel better, to avoid having your eye infection return.

What are the potential complications of an eye infection?

Most eye infections are not serious. However, in some cases, or with preexisting conditions, an eye infection may be more serious and jeopardize your vision and even your health. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Left untreated, eye infections can lead to serious complications including:

  • Change in the growth or position of the eyelashes, resulting in abrasion and irritation of the eye surface

  • Corneal damage and scarring, resulting in vision impairment

  • Loss of vision and blindness

  • Orbital cellulitis (invasive infection of the soft tissues around the eye)

  • Spread of infection

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 16
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Eye infections. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/eyeinfections.html.
  2. Pink eye: usually mild and easy to treat. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/Features/Conjunctivitis/