Swollen Eyelid: Possible Causes and When to See a Doctor

Medically Reviewed By Katherine E. Duncan, MD
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A swollen eyelid can have a variety of causes, some more serious than others. Depending on the cause, you may be able to treat eyelid swelling at home. However, in some cases, it is important to contact a doctor for a swollen eyelid. A swollen eyelid occurs when your eyelid becomes puffy or inflamed as a result of there being excess fluid in the soft tissues around your eyes. This may happen in one eye or both, and it may involve your upper eyelids, lower eyelids, or both.

This article covers the symptoms, causes, and treatment options associated with swollen eyelids. It also provides guidance on when to contact a doctor for a swollen eyelid.

What is a swollen eyelid?

Woman covering eyes with forefingers
Lucas Ottone/Stocksy United

Eyelid swelling may affect a portion of your eyelid or the entire lid. It can occur with or without pain and itching, and it may also appear with numerous other symptoms.

Causes range from not getting enough sleep to having a serious underlying health condition, such as kidney disease or eye cancer.

Because eyelid swelling may indicate a serious condition, you should talk with your medical professional about your symptoms. If you experience eyelid swelling accompanied by any of the following symptoms, seek immediate medical care (call 911):

  • fever
  • vision problems
  • abnormal eye movements or a loss of movement
  • bulging of the eye(s)
  • symptoms of anaphylactic shock, which include:
    • swelling of the tongue and throat
    • hives
    • difficulty breathing

What causes a swollen eyelid?

Your swollen eyelid could be due to any one of a variety of mild to serious diseases, disorders, and conditions. You can also get puffy eyes from crying, not getting enough sleep, or rubbing your eyes too much.

Swelling in your eyelids can also be due to infections or injuries. Allergies are a common cause, either by coming into direct contact with an allergen (such as animal dander entering your eye) or experiencing a systemic allergic reaction (such as hay fever).

Depending on the cause, eyelid swelling can last for a short time and disappear quickly, such as when you have a mild allergic reaction. Eyelid swelling that develops over time and occurs along with additional symptoms may indicate a more serious condition that affects the entire body, such as hyperthyroidism or infection.

Common causes of eyelid swelling

  • Allergies and allergic reactions: Eye allergies can cause your eye(s) to become irritated and swollen. Common allergens include pet dander, pollen, dust mites, and mold. Irritants such as perfume and cigarette smoke can also trigger allergic reactions.
  • Blepharitis: Besides swelling of the eyelids, blepharitis causes crusty eyelids and eyelashes, as well as burning, itching, or dryness in one or both eyes. While blepharitis does not typically cause lasting damage, it is often a chronic condition, never going away completely.
  • Chalazion: A chalazion is an often painless area of swelling on one eyelid caused by an obstructed oil gland. Sometimes, the entire eyelid swells, and vision can be blocked. If you have rosacea, you are at increased risk of this condition.
  • Conjunctivitis (pink eye): Conjunctivitis is a bacterial or viral infection of the conjunctiva, which is the thin tissue that lines your eyelids and covers the white part of your eyes. Besides swelling, it causes eye redness and itchiness, tears, and eye discharge. It can occur in one or both eyes, and it is very contagious.
  • Giant papillary conjunctivitis: This type of conjunctivitis occurs on the underside of your eyelid and commonly affects people who wear contact lenses, especially those with eye allergies. It causes swollen, red, irritated eyelids and, without prompt treatment, can result in serious eye damage.
  • Medication side effects: In rare instances, some drugs — such as ACE inhibitors, which are a type of blood pressure medication — may cause facial and eyelid swelling.
  • Periorbital cellulitis and orbital cellulitis: These two potentially serious conditions often occur due to the spread of infections, such as sinusitis and upper respiratory tract infections, into the eye area. They are more common in young children and adults. Without prompt treatment, they can result in vision loss or other problems.
  • Stye (hordeolum): A stye is an area of red, painful swelling in your eyelid due to inflammation or a Staphylococcal infection of an eyelash follicle. Styes usually contain pus and typically rupture within a few days, which releases the pus and reduces swelling.
  • Trauma: Skull fractures, burns, direct blows, insect or animal bites, foreign objects in the eye, and surgery can all cause eyelid swelling, often with discoloration.

Other causes of eyelid swelling

Eyelid swelling can be due to a variety of infections and other conditions, including:

Because a swollen eyelid can be a symptom of a serious underlying condition, speak with your doctor if your eyelid swelling persists or if you experience additional symptoms.

What other symptoms can occur with a swollen eyelid?

You may experience additional symptoms in addition to swollen eyelids. These vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder, or condition that is causing your swelling.

Vision and other eye-related symptoms

Eyelid swelling may accompany vision problems and other eye symptoms, including:

  • discharge from the eye
  • dry eyes
  • eye pain
  • an inability to turn the eyeball
  • increased sensitivity to light, or photophobia
  • increased tear production, or watery eyes
  • protruding or bulging eye(s)
  • red, itchy eyes
  • skin sores or pus-filled bumps
  • vision problems, such as blurred vision or a loss of vision

Other symptoms

Eyelid swelling may also accompany some non-eye signs and symptoms, including:

Serious symptoms

In some cases, eyelid swelling can indicate a serious or life threatening condition that requires emergency evaluation or treatment. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for any of the following symptoms:

  • eyelid swelling after head trauma
  • high fever, or fever higher than 103°F (39ºC) for adults or 101°F (38ºC) for children, along with other signs of infection or distress, such as a stiff neck or difficulty breathing
  • neck stiffness
  • protruding or bulging eye(s) with redness, fever, and pain
  • severe headache
  • a sudden loss of vision
  • throat tightness, wheezing, or difficulty breathing

What are at-home care tips for a swollen eyelid?

Treatment for a swollen eyelid depends on the cause. For causes such as blepharitis, conjunctivitis, and styes, treatment includes at-home care.

For mild eyelid swelling, here are some ways you can relieve symptoms at home:

  • Apply a cool compress to reduce inflammation. For blepharitis, a warm compress can help loosen crusts and unclog oil glands.
  • Wash and rinse the skin around your eyelids using a gentle cleaner, such as baby shampoo diluted with water. Gently pat dry.
  • Use sterile saline or artificial tears to rinse your eyes.
  • Apply either cool or warm compresses to soothe the eyes and reduce swelling.
  • Do not wear contact lenses until your eyelid swelling goes away. You may need to try a different type of lens or lens solution to prevent future problems.
  • If you have dandruff, treat this with special shampoo to prevent eyelid irritation.
  • If eyelid swelling is a symptom of your allergies, take over-the-counter antihistamines. Using artificial tears can also flush allergens from your eye.

When should you contact a doctor for a swollen eyelid?

If you have severely swollen eyelids or your symptoms do not go away with at-home care, speak with your primary care physician or an ophthalmologist. Ophthalmologists are doctors who specialize in eye care. They can make an accurate diagnosis and discuss treatment options.

If your eyelid swelling is a symptom of an underlying condition, your eye doctor may refer you to other specialists who can treat the root cause.

Learn about six other times you need to contact an eye doctor here.

Questions for diagnosing the cause of eyelid swelling

To diagnose the underlying cause of your eyelid swelling, your primary care physician or eye doctor may ask you several questions related to your symptoms and medical history. For example:

  • Describe the swelling. When did it start? Is it in one or both eyes?
  • Did you have any trauma before the swelling started, such as an injury or bug bite?
  • Did you eat any specific foods or come into contact with any unusual substances preceding the swelling?
  • Are you experiencing any other eye symptoms, such as a change in vision or discharge from your eye?
  • Do you have any other types of symptoms, such as itching, pain, headache, fever, or shortness of breath?
  • Have you had any recent eye surgeries or other eye problems?
  • Do you have any allergies? Have you had recent exposure to any allergens?
  • Do you use ACE inhibitors? These are a type of blood pressure drug sometimes linked to facial and eyelid swelling.
  • Provide your full medical history, including medical conditions, surgeries and treatments, family history, and a list of the medications and dietary supplements that you take.

Medical treatments for a swollen eyelid

After diagnosing the cause of your eyelid swelling, your doctor may recommend treatments such as:

  • allergy medications, such as prescription pills or eye drops
  • antibiotic eye drops, oral antibiotics, or IV antibiotics for bacterial infections
  • antiviral eye drops or ointments for herpes or shingles
  • corticosteroids or other types of anti-inflammatory eye drops
  • the incision and drainage of a stye, chalazion, or abscess
  • medications to treat other underlying conditions, such as thyroid hormone for hypothyroidism and diuretics for heart failure
  • the removal of a foreign object from the eye or eyelid

How long does it take to reduce eyelid swelling?

For temporary causes, such as allergies, it may take as little as a few hours to reduce eyelid swelling with home remedies and an antihistamine.

For swelling due to blocked glands, such as a chalazion, you can expect recovery to occur in a few weeks to a month.

If your eyelid swelling is due to optical cellulitis, which is a bacterial infection in the eye socket, you will usually experience an improvement within 24–48 hours after the start of IV antibiotics. This is especially true if you received a diagnosis early and treatment began quickly.

For other serious causes of eyelid swelling, such as organ failure or thyroid-related eye disorders, swelling may not resolve until the treatment of the root cause is successful.

When is a swollen eyelid an emergency?

In some cases, eyelid swelling is a symptom of a serious condition that requires immediate evaluation. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you experience a swollen eyelid alongside any of the following symptoms:

  • a sudden loss of vision
  • eyelid swelling after head trauma
  • anaphylaxis symptoms, which may include:
    • swelling of the tongue, lips, or mouth
    • itching
    • wheezing or feeling as though your throat is tight
  • swelling in any area of your body
  • high fever, or fever higher than 103°F (39ºC) for adults and 101°F (38ºC) for children, along with other warning signs, such as flushed and tender areas of the body
  • neck stiffness
  • protruding or bulging eye(s) with redness, fever, and pain, as these are symptoms of infection in the eye socket
  • severe headache

Summary

A swollen eyelid occurs when the tissue in the eyelid becomes inflamed and puffy. This can be due to a variety of causes, some more serious than others.

Common causes of swollen eyelids include infections such as blepharitis or conjunctivitis, styes, and allergic reactions. Chronic conditions such as heart failure and thyroid disease can also cause eyelid swelling.

Many causes of swollen eyelids can resolve with at-home care, including rinsing the eye, applying cold or warm compresses, and using artificial tears to wash out any allergens.

For eyelid swelling that is a symptom of a chronic condition, your eye doctor may refer you to a different specialist who can discuss treatment options for the underlying cause.

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Medical Reviewer: Katherine E. Duncan, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Jan 31
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