Iritis, also known as acute uveitis, is an inflammation of the uvea or the uveal tract. Most of us know the iris, the coloured section of our eye – this is the front part of the uvea. Uveitis and iritis are names that frequently refer to the same condition. In fact, of all iritis or uveitis cases, three quarters affect the iris and are termed to be anterior uveitis.
What is iritis?
Iritis, or anterior uveitis, is an inflammation of the iris – the coloured part of your eye that controls the size of your pupil (the black dot that is smaller in bright light and larger in dim light). Iritis can be painful, make you sensitive to light and potentially threaten your sight if not treated promptly.
Pronounced ‘i-RYE-tis’, it is the most common form of uveitis. Uveitis is an inflammation of the middle layers of the eye, also known as the uvea.
Iritis can often be linked with other conditions which lead to inflammation elsewhere in the body either due to an autoimmune disease, a trauma or after surgery. However, in many cases, the underlying cause is unknown and may otherwise affect healthy people who are young to middle-aged.
Iritis usually responds very well to treatment but can often reoccur months or years later, so it remains important to seek immediate advice to avoid affecting your sight.
Symptoms of iritis (anterior uveitis)
In most cases, the symptoms of iritis, or anterior uveitis, will develop quickly over a few hours or days – this is known as acute iritis. The inflammation can occur in one eye or both, causing aching, and may become a recurrent problem.
Causes of iritis (anterior uveitis)
There are several causes of iritis, including: autoimmune disease, severe eye infections or trauma to the eye. In many cases, however, an underlying cause cannot be found.
- Eye injury – may result from contact with a blunt or sharp object as well as injuries from chemicals or fire burns.
- Infections - including bacterial and viral infections of the eye. In rare cases, it can be caused by infections elsewhere in the body, such as; tuberculosis, HIV or Lyme disease.
- Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis – a common cause of iritis in children. Those with juvenile arthritis should have their eyes checked regularly.
- Genetic autoimmune diseases – disruptions to the immune system from these diseases can cause acute iritis.
- Some medications – if you’re taking medications and iritis occurs, it’s best to speak to your health provider to see if the two are linked.
Is iritis contagious?
Because iritis is an inflammation inside of the eye, it is not contagious.
Diagnosing iritis (anterior uveitis)
Your optometrist will perform a variety of tests to determine if you have iritis, these will include:
- Discussing the history and symptoms of your eye problem.
- Checking your vision using standard eye test charts and procedures.
- Looking into your eye using a slit-lamp – an illuminated microscope that can see deep into the eye. Drops may be used to dilate your pupil making it easier to look for inflammation and check the pressure of the eye.
If the optometrist diagnoses iritis, they may ask you about your overall health to see if it’s linked to another condition. From there they will arrange an urgent referral to the nearest hospital eye department to confirm the diagnosis, start treatment and consider if further investigations of the cause are required.
The key to treating iritis is to reduce the inflammation, relieve the pain and, ultimately, protect your vision.
To do this, you’ll be given steroid eyedrops to reduce the inflammation and dilating eyedrops to reduce the pain and avoid the pupil getting stuck down.
If your iritis is caused by another condition, this too will be looked at.
In addition to following the advice from your optometrist or GP regarding the medications prescribed, you can also take paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve the pain and wear sunglasses to help with bright lights.
Types of iritis
There are three types of iritis:
Acute iritis (or acute anterior uveitis)
Acute iritis will develop over a few hours or days and will usually involve eye pain, sensitivity to light, tearing, red eyes and blurry vision.
Acute iritis can normally be resolved with anti-inflammatory eye drops and it is vital to take them as directed. Recovery time will vary according to the underlying cause but will typically take four to six weeks.
Recurrent iritis (or recurrent anterior uveitis)
If iritis is linked to another condition it can flare up again – this is known as recurrent iritis. Although you may recognise similar symptoms to the first episode, iritis still requires prompt treatment from an eye expert. If not treated promptly, potential complications can be caused with the condition and the treatment.
Chronic Iritis (or chronic recurrent anterior uveitis)
If the iritis persists over a few weeks or reoccurs after treatment, it is known as chronic iritis. Symptoms in these cases can be less severe, but will still require frequent follow-ups by ophthalmologists to avoid vision loss.