Autoimmune diseases are conditions in which the immune system, which typically guards against germs, can no longer tell the difference between foreign viruses or bacteria and the body’s own cells. This causes the immune system to mistakenly attack the normal cells in the body, leading to a number of symptoms from fatigue to digestive issues and inflammation. Autoimmune diseases can affect any part of the body, including the eyes.
Which autoimmune diseases cause eye inflammation?
Eye inflammation can also be a symptom of much broader autoimmune diseases that affect more than one body part such as in rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and Reiter’s Disease.2
The eye is composed of tissues that are similar to joints.3 As a result, many autoimmune diseases that affect joints also affect the eyes — such as rheumatoid arthritis. The most common eye-related symptom of rheumatoid arthritis is dryness, although more severe cases can cause inflammation in the white part (sclera) of your eyes, leading to scleritis.
Sjogren's syndrome is a chronic autoimmune disease that attacks the glands responsible for keeping the eyes, mouth and other parts of the body moist and lubricated.
If the lacrimal gland is affected (the gland which secretes tears) this can result in dry eye. When diagnosing or managing Sjogren's syndrome, ophthalmologists will look out for signs of severe dry eye syndrome, alongside blocked, inflamed glands.4
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease that affects the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerve. Optic neuritis (inflammation of the optic nerve in the eye) is a common symptom of MS, and is typically one of the first signs of MS.
Those affected by optic neuritis usually experience symptoms in just one eye.7 Other eye symptoms associated with MS include nystagmus (rapid, uncontrolled movement of the eyes) and diplopia (double vision).7
Reiter’s syndrome (also known as reactive arthritis) is a type of inflammatory arthritis that affects the joints, eyes, and urethra. Eye inflammation is a common symptom of Reiter’s syndrome, which can occur in the form of conjunctivitis and uveitis (inflammation of the middle layer of the eye).8
This is a systemic autoimmune disease that causes blood vessel inflammation throughout the body — including the eyes. Approximately 70% of patients with Bechet’s disease will experience eye inflammation symptoms such as uveitis and retinal vasculitis (inflammation of the retinal blood vessels).5
Sarcoidosis is a rare condition that causes small patches of red and swollen tissue, called granulomas, to develop in the organs of the body. It usually affects the lungs, skin and eyes. Sarcoidosis can affect people of any age, but usually starts in adults aged between 20 and 40. Sarcoidosis can occasionally occur in more than one family member, but there's no evidence that the condition is inherited.9 The condition isn't infectious, so it can't be passed from person to person.
Graves’ disease is a condition in which the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, leading to an overproduction of thyroid hormones. This has a number of effects on various parts of the body, including the eyes. Around 30% of patients with Graves’ disease show signs of Graves’ ophthalmology — the inflammation of muscles and tissues around the eyes which can result in bulging, puffy eyes.6
Diagnosis of autoimmune eye disease
One test that your optometrist might conduct is an optical coherence tomography scan (commonly known as OCT scans). OCT scanning allows us to see what’s going on beneath the surface of the eye, which may be useful for detecting conditions — including autoimmune eye diseases — that don’t have many noticeable symptoms in the early stages.
Can an OCT scan detect autoimmune disease?
Since many of these conditions form at the back or in the middle of the eye, OCT technology can help your optometrist to spot early signs and symptoms of these conditions, potentially before they begin to impact your vision. This means that conditions such as autoimmune eye diseases can be managed before they get worse and can help prevent potential sight loss.
Want to learn more about OCT scanning? Visit our OCT scan page or book an appointment and ask your optician about adding an OCT scan to your normal eye test.
Autoimmune eye disease treatment
The impact of autoimmune disorders on your eyes can sometimes be lessened with appropriate medication. Treatment options for autoimmune eye disease will vary depending on the condition. If you are suffering from vision problems, consult your optometrist as soon as possible.
Book an eye test
We recommend that you have a routine eye test at least every two years to monitor your eye health over time. However, if you are concerned about any changes in your vision, or notice symptoms, it’s important to book an eye test to have them checked out. You can learn more about eye conditions and their symptoms on our eye conditions hub, or find out more about OCT scans.
- The Ocular Immunology and Uveitis Foundation. (no date). Ocular Autoimmune Disease: An Introduction. [Online]. Available at: https://uveitis.org/patient_articles/ocular-autoimmune-disease-introduction/ [Accessed 20 November 2019].
- E-medicine Health. (no date). What Autoimmune Diseases Affect the Eyes? [Online]. Available at: https://www.emedicinehealth.com/ask_what_autoimmune_diseases_affect_the_eyes/article_em.htm#ask_a_doctor [Accessed 20 November 2019].
- The Ocular Immunology and Uveitis Foundation. (no date). Connection Between Arthritis and Ocular Disease. [Online]. Available at: https://uveitis.org/connection-arthritis-ocular-disease/ [Accessed 20 November 2019].
- Healio. (no date). Factors separate Sjogren’s syndrome from simple dry eye. [Online]. Available at: https://www.healio.com/ophthalmology/news/print/ocular-surgery-news-europe-asia-edition/%7B1a8b3144-7978-4b38-8968-9e65574acf00%7D/factors-separate-sjgrens-syndrome-from-simple-dry-eye [Accessed 20 November 2019].
- American Academy of Ophthalmology. (no date). Behcet’s Disease. [Online]. Available at: https://eyewiki.aao.org/Behcet%27s_Disease [Accessed 20 November 2019].
- Bausch and Lomb. (no date). Graves’ Disease (Graves’ Ophthalmopathy). [Online]. Available at: https://www.bausch.com/your-eye-concerns/chronic-conditions/graves-disease [Accessed 20 November 2019].
- National Multiple Sclerosis Society. (no date). Vision Problems. [Online]. Available at: https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Symptoms-Diagnosis/MS-Symptoms/Vision-Problems [Accessed 20 November 2019].
- Kovalev IuN, II’in II. Ophthalmological aspects of Reiter’s disease. Vestn Oftalmol. 1990 Jul-Aug;106(4):65–9. [Online]. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2238333 [Accessed 20 November 2019].
- NHS UK. (2018) Sarcoidosis. [Online]. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/sarcoidosis/ [Accessed 22 January 2020]