Eye inflammation is a general term used to describe a variety of conditions, infections or injuries that affect different parts of the eye. Optometrists will often diagnose eye inflammation based on the presence of redness, swelling, irritation or pain.
As inflammation can affect different parts of the eye, it’s important to see your optometrist who will help make sure you get the right treatment.
A breakdown of the eye
The human eye is a complex structure with many parts. The main areas that are more likely to become inflamed are:
Conjunctiva: A connective tissue that covers the surface of the eyeball and underside of the eyelids.
Cornea: This is a transparent 'window' at the front of the eye. It's responsible for transmitting and focusing light into the eye, the cornea is what helps make your vision sharp and clear.
Optic nerve: A bundle of more than one million nerve fibres that carry images from the retina (the light-sensitive layer at the back of your eye) to the brain.
Sclera: The opaque white part of the eye is called the sclera, which protects and supports the eye.
Uvea: The uvea is the middle layer of tissues in the eye, under the sclera. It consists of three parts: the iris (the coloured part, which controls the diameter of the pupil), the ciliary body (which secretes a nourishing liquid called the aqueous humour), and the choroid (which is a layer of blood vessels between the sclera and retina).
All these parts of the eye play an important role in its functionality, and they can all become inflamed.
What is inflammatory eye disease?
Inflammatory eye disease includes a range of conditions associated with eye inflammation – the symptoms of which vary. The signs of eye inflammation can come on suddenly and progress quickly. It’s important that you see your optometrist if you are concerned that any part of your eye might be inflamed.
What are the symptoms of eye inflammation?
Conjunctivitis (pink eye) – conjunctival inflammation
Pink eye (conjunctivitis) is an inflammation or infection of the transparent membrane (conjunctiva) that lines your eyelid and covers the white part of your eyeball. When small blood vessels in the conjunctiva become inflamed, they're more visible. This is what causes the whites of your eyes to appear reddish or pink. Pink eye is commonly caused by a bacterial or viral infection or an allergic reaction.
Though pink eye can be irritating, it rarely affects your vision. Treatments can help ease the discomfort of pink eye. Because pink eye can be contagious, early diagnosis and treatment can help limit its spread.
Keratitis – corneal inflammation
Wearing your contact lenses too long or not following proper hygiene practices can lead to keratitis. It can also happen as a result of infection or minor injury to the cornea. Keratitis can make your eyes red and watery, as well as cause some pain, light sensitivity, a gritty sensation in your eye or blurred vision.
If you notice any of these symptoms, you should make an appointment to see your optician right away as, if left untreated, complications can arise. Your optometrist will usually use a slit lamp to check your eye for symptoms of this inflammation.
Optic neuritis – optic nerve inflammation
Symptoms of optic neuritis typically include pain and temporary loss of vision in one eye. Some people also see flashing lights or find that colours appear less vivid. It can develop quickly, so if you experience any sudden changes to your eyes, it's important to book an appointment with an optometrist as soon as possible.
Scleritis – scleral inflammation
Scleritis is a serious eye condition which can cause long-term problems to vision if left untreated. Symptoms include pain, redness, excessive tearing, and light sensitivity.
Scleritis has been associated with autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.1 This condition can be treated with steroid medications, however, it’s important to seek medical attention quickly. Scleritis can also be detected using a slit lamp.
Inflammation of the uvea usually comes on suddenly and develops quickly and is more common in people who suffer from other inflammatory or autoimmune disorders e.g. rheumatoid arthritis. Symptoms of uveitis can include redness, pain, and blurred vision in one or both eyes. Some people may also see floaters or experience decreased vision. If you have any of the warning signs and symptoms of uveitis, see your optometrist as soon as possible.
What causes eye inflammation?
There are a number of reasons why eye inflammation can occur, including autoimmune disorders, irritation, eye injury and trauma to the eyes. Inflammation can also occur as a result of infection and allergies.
How can autoimmune diseases cause eye inflammation?
An autoimmune disease can affect any part of the body, including the eyes. However, eye inflammation can be a symptom of a much broader autoimmune disease that affects more than one body part such as in rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and Reiter’s disease.
As a result, autoimmune diseases can cause a number of signs and symptoms, from double vision and drooping eyelids to inflammation.
The eye is composed of tissues that are similar to joints.1 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.
Sjögren'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.
People with Sjögren's syndrome are much more likely to experience dry eyes due to its effect on the lacrimal glands which secrete tears. When diagnosing Sjögren's syndrome, ophthalmologists will look out for signs of severe dry eye syndrome, alongside blocked, inflamed glands.2
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, which can be detected by an OCT scan.
Those affected by optic neuritis usually experience symptoms in just one eye.3 Other eye symptoms associated with MS include nystagmus (rapid, uncontrolled movement of the eyes) and diplopia (double vision).3
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).4
You can find out more about the types of autoimmune disease and how these can cause eye inflammation.
Diagnosing and detecting eye inflammation
Diagnosing inflammatory eye disease starts with an eye exam. A standard eye exam usually includes:
Visual acuity test – also known as the eye chart test, visual acuity checks for vision loss
Ocular pressure test – measures pressure inside the eye
A slit-lamp examination – a powerful microscope used to examine the front surface of the eyes
Retinal examination – specialist lenses, retinal photographs or OCT scanning can be used to assess your retinal health.
Can an OCT scan detect eye inflammation?
An optical coherence tomography scan (commonly referred to as an OCT scan) helps us to view the health of your eyes in greater detail, by allowing us to see what’s going on beneath the surface of the eye.
As many eye inflammatory diseases affect the retina or optic nerve, an OCT scan could help your optometrist to spot early signs of these conditions before they begin to impact your vision. This could allow earlier referral and treatment. Just ask your optician to add an OCT scan to your normal eye test or visit our OCT scan page to find out more.
Eye inflammation treatment
Treatment varies depending on the inflammatory condition and the causes. The most common treatments are listed below, yet additional treatment may also be needed:
- Management of underlying auto-immune disease
- Antibiotic, antihistamine, antiviral or antifungal eye drops
- Non-steroidal or steroidal anti-inflammatories – drops, oral pills, injections, capsules, intravenous injections
- Immunosuppressants – this medication calms the immune system’s response to system-wide inflammation.
- 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].
- 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].