Eye Inflammation

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What is eye inflammation?

Inflammation is your body’s response to injury, infection or irritation. In some cases, inflammation can occur in response to normally harmless substances, such as dust, grass or pollen. This is an allergic reaction. The immune system may also trigger inflammation in response to the body’s own tissues. This is called an autoimmune reaction.

Eye inflammation occurs in response to infection, allergies, autoimmune disorders, irritation, or injury or trauma to the eye or eyelid. Symptoms of eye inflammation can affect the eyes, eyelids, or surrounding tissues and include:

  • Blurry vision
  • Pain

  • Redness

  • Swelling

  • Tearing

  • Unusual warmth or heat

Eye inflammation is common and happens to people of all ages. It can last from a few minutes to years, depending on the type and severity of the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Inflammation may occur in one or both eyes at a time, and it may be accompanied by itching, excessive tear production, eye discharge, or other symptoms of the eyes and surrounding tissues. Treatment for eye inflammation depends on the underlying cause.

Eye inflammation can be a sign of a serious condition, such as an anaphylactic reaction, orbital cellulitis, or corneal abrasion. Seek prompt medical care if you have eye inflammation that is unexplained or persistent, or that causes you concern. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have had any type of injury or trauma to the eye or if you have eyelid, facial or mouth swelling, severe difficulty breathing, or any type of sudden change in your vision.

What other symptoms might occur with eye inflammation?

Eye inflammation occurs in response to a variety of diseases, disorders and conditions. Symptoms of inflammation include redness, swelling, pain, and unusual warmth or heat of the eye, eyelid, or surrounding tissues. Eye inflammation may be accompanied by other symptoms, depending on the underlying cause.

Eye symptoms that occur with eye inflammation

Eye inflammation may accompany other symptoms affecting the eye area including:

  • Bruising

  • Bulging or protruding eye

  • Dry or itchy eye

  • Excessive tear production

  • Eyelashes or eyelids stuck together when you awaken

  • Lumps or nodules of the eyelid or skin

  • Pus or discharge

  • Sensitivity or inability to tolerate bright light (photophobia)

  • Uncoordinated or jerky eye movements

  • Vision changes, such as blurred vision, floaters, loss of vision, or flashing lights

Other symptoms that occur with eye inflammation

Eye inflammation may accompany symptoms related to other body systems. Symptoms may include:

  • Enlargement of the lymph nodes or swollen salivary glands
  • Muscle pain or weakness, or lack of coordination and balance
  • Neck stiffness

Symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition

In some cases, eye inflammation may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have a serious eye injury or any of the following symptoms:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness

  • Eyelid swelling after head trauma

  • Redness and sudden swelling of the tissues around the eye, especially if accompanied by drainage, fever, or shortness of breath

  • Respiratory or breathing problems, such as severe shortness of breath, severe difficulty breathing, labored breathing, wheezing, not breathing, or choking

  • Sudden change in vision, loss of vision, or eye pain

  • Sudden general swelling (edema)

  • Sudden swelling of the face, lips or tongue

What causes eye inflammation?

Inflammation is your body’s response to injury, infection or irritation. Eye inflammation can be caused by allergies, infections, autoimmune diseases, injuries to the eye, and abrasions in the eye.

Allergic causes of eye inflammation

Allergic reactions are a common cause of eye inflammation. Examples include:

  • Drug allergies

  • Food allergies

  • Hay fever or allergic reaction to allergens, such as animal dander, dust, cosmetics, or pollen

  • Insect bite allergy such as bee stings

Infectious causes of eye inflammation

Infections can cause inflammation in different structures of the eye. Infections include:

  • Conjunctivitis (inflammation of the eye’s surface)
  • Dacryocystitis (infection of the tear ducts)
  • Endophthalmitis (infection within the eyeball itself)
  • Keratitis (inflammation of the cornea that may be caused by injury or infection)
  • Periorbital cellulitis (invasive infection of the eyelids and soft tissue around the eyes)
  • Scleritis (infection of the sclera, the white of the eye)
  • Stye or hordeolum (localized bacterial infection of an oil gland or eyelash follicle in the eyelid margin)

Traumatic causes of eye inflammation

Eye inflammation can also be caused by trauma or injury to any part of the eye or eye socket (orbit). Examples include:

  • Blunt trauma
  • Burns
  • Chemical injuries
  • Corneal abrasion or ulcer
  • Foreign objects or materials in the eye, such as dirt or small metal or wood pieces
  • Hematoma (collection of blood in body tissues)
  • Insect bite or sting
  • Irritants, such as soaps and chemicals
  • Orbital bone fracture (fracture of the bone surrounding the eye)

Autoimmune causes of eye inflammation

Eye inflammation can also be caused by certain autoimmune diseases in which the immune system produces an inflammatory response to the body's own tissues, including tissues of the eyes. Examples include:

  • Ankylosing spondylitis (inflammation of joints between the vertebrae of the spine)

  • Behçet's syndrome (type of vasculitis that causes ulcers and other types of lesions)

  • Dermatomyositis (condition characterized by muscle inflammation and skin rash)

  • Graves’ disease (type of hyperthyroidism resulting in excessive thyroid hormone production and possibly protruding or bulging eyes)

  • Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (type of arthritis occurring in children)

  • Multiple sclerosis (disease that affects the brain and spinal cord causing weakness, coordination, balance difficulties, and a variety of eye problems)

  • Psoriatic arthritis (type of arthritis linked with psoriasis)

  • Reiter’s syndrome (form of arthritis)

  • Rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation)

  • Sjögren’s syndrome (disorder that attacks moisture-producing glands of the body, such as the glands that produce tears and saliva)

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues)

  • Wegener's granulomatosis (inflammation of the blood vessels)

Serious or life-threatening causes of eye inflammation

In some cases, eye inflammation may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Examples include:

  • Corneal ulcer (perforation may occur)
  • Endophthalmitis (infection inside the eyeball itself)
  • Orbital cellulitis (invasive infection of the soft tissues around the eye)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of eye inflammation

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed healthcare provider will ask you several questions related to your condition including:

  • Did you recently experience an injury to your eye or face?

  • Have you been in recent contact with any unusual or new substances or environments, such as new medications or food?

  • Has your vision changed?

  • How long have your symptoms been present?

  • What other symptoms are you experiencing in your eye and elsewhere on your body?

What are the potential complications of eye inflammation?

Complications of untreated eye inflammation or its underlying cause can be serious and life threatening, and vary depending on the condition and the individual case. Following the treatment plan you and your healthcare provider develop specifically for you will minimize the risk of complications including:

  • Blindness or reduced vision and disability
  • Cellulitis
  • Chronic eye discomfort
  • Loss of the eye and orbit
  • Vision disturbances
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 8
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. Diseases & Conditions. American Academy of Opthamology. http://www.geteyesmart.org/eyesmart/diseases/index.cfm.
  2. Ocular Manifestations of Autoimmune Disease. American Family Physician. http://www.aafp.org/afp/2002/0915/p991.html.