There are many eye infections, including conjunctivitis, keratitis, and cellulitis. Symptoms can include itchiness, discharge, vision changes, and more.

While many minor eye infections heal well on their own, others can be serious and may cause permanent vision loss.

It is important to contact a health professional if a person has changes in their eyes or vision that could indicate an infection.

This article looks at the different potential eye infections and how to treat them.

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Conjunctivitis in the eye

Often called “pinkeye,” this is the most common eye infection.

The conjunctiva is a thin layer of tissue that covers the whites of the eyes and insides of the eyelids. Conjunctivitis is an infection or inflammation of the conjunctiva.

A person may get the infection in one eye or both.

Types of conjunctivitis include:

  • Viral: Affects adults more than children and is the most common type of conjunctivitis.
  • Bacterial: A pinkeye that commonly affects children.
  • Gonococcal: Common in newborns and sexually active teenagers.
  • Chlamydial: Typically occurs alongside a genital infection.
  • Allergic: Occurs when allergens enter the eye, such as pollen, dust mites, or pet dander.

Irritation from getting a chemical or foreign object in the eye can also cause conjunctivitis. A person may have excessive eye watering or discharge from the eye if this happens.

No matter what the cause of pinkeye, telltale symptoms include:

  • discharge from the eye
  • eyelids that are crusted together upon waking up
  • whites of the eyes that look pink or red
  • itchiness in one or both eyes
  • feeling like there is sand or grit in the eye
  • excessive tears

Diagnosis and treatment

A health care professional can often recognize conjunctivitis by examining the eye and discussing the person’s symptoms.

Many people can treat viral conjunctivitis at home.

Medical treatments for pinkeye by type include:

  • Viral: Cold compresses, topical antihistamines, or artificial tears to soothe the eye. A doctor may prescribe antivirals if the cause is the herpes simplex virus (HSV) or the zoster virus.
  • Bacterial: If the eyes do not improve after 5 days, or 24 hours of treatment, a person should see an ophthalmologist or optometrist immediately. Mild bacterial conjunctivitis may resolve by itself after 2 weeks.
  • Gonococcal: Artificial tears and prescription antibiotics are common treatments for this type of conjunctivitis. It is common in neonatal infants, and many hospitals have preventative protocols to limit occurrence.
  • Chlamydial: Chlamydial conjunctivitis is again common in neonatal infants. Treatment often requires assistance from multiple specialist providers and oral antibiotics.
  • Allergic: Avoiding allergy triggers or saline eye drops, allergy medications, or allergy shots.

A person should avoid touching their eye and should wash their hands frequently to avoid spreading conjunctivitis to others.

It is wise to contact a pediatrician if an infant has signs of conjunctivitis.

Keratitis in the eye
Image credit: Kauczuk, 2007.

Keratitis is inflammation or infection of the cornea, which is the clear outer layer on the colored part of the eye.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that improper contact lens care increases the risk of keratitis. Wearing lenses for too long or not cleaning and storing them correctly can increase the chance of germs getting into the cornea.

Without treatment, keratitis can cause scarring on the cornea and permanent loss of vision.

The different types of keratitis include:

  • Herpes keratitis: This condition happens when the HSV infects the cornea.
  • Bacterial keratitis: Improper care of contact lenses can cause bacterial keratitis, but it can also happen from eye injuries, a weakened immune system, and certain eye diseases.
  • Parasitic keratitis: A tiny ameba called Acanthamoeba can cause this keratitis, which is also called amebic keratitis. It is a rare type of keratitis. It is often due to exposure to contaminated water when bathing, swimming, or changing contact lenses.
  • Fungal keratitis: Several types of fungi can enter the cornea and cause fungal keratitis. This is more likely to happen if a person has a weakened immune system, an eye injury, eye disease, or uses contact lenses.

Symptoms of keratitis include:

  • redness and irritation of the eyes
  • pain in the eyes
  • a feeling of something in the eye
  • sensitivity to light
  • blurry vision
  • discharge or watery eyes

Diagnosis and treatment

A doctor may need to use a special light to view the eye or send a sample of cells to a lab for testing to determine which type of keratitis a person is experiencing. They will also take a careful history to assess possible risk factor exposure.

Keratitis treatment may require antibiotic, antiviral, or antifungal medicine in the form of eye drops or pills.

Endophthalmitis is an infection of the fluid or tissue inside the eye. It requires immediate medical treatment, or it may cause blindness.

According to 2018 research, worldwide cataract surgery is the most common cause of this condition.

Two common types of endophthalmitis include:

  • Exogenous endophthalmitis: This most common type can occur after an eye injury, surgery, or injection. When the eye’s protective surface is compromised, bacteria or fungi enter the eye.
  • Endogenous endophthalmitis: This infection stems from an infection in another body part that spreads to the eye. For example, it can happen with a urinary tract infection or blood infection.

Symptoms of endophthalmitis include:

  • eye pain
  • redness
  • changes in vision
  • sensitivity to light

Diagnosis and treatment

The American Society of Retina Specialists says that most cases of endophthalmitis require antibiotic or antifungal injections and possibly emergency surgery.

Image credit: Bobjgalindo, 2009.

Cellulitis is a bacterial or fungal infection. It can affect the skin and the eyes.

Two types of cellulitis may affect the eyes:

  • Preseptal cellulitis: This type affects the eyelids.
  • Orbital cellulitis: This type affects the eyeball and soft tissues behind the eyelid septum.

Symptoms of cellulitis in the eye include:

  • bulging of the eye
  • red eyelids
  • swelling around the eye
  • vision changes, such as double vision or blurriness
  • trouble moving the eye normally
  • fever
  • fatigue

Diagnosis and treatment

Doctors often diagnose preseptal cellulitis with clinical observation.

If a doctor suspects orbital cellulitis, they may order certain scans or a blood test. They may also take a small sample of cells from the eyes or nose.

Cellulitis requires antibiotic treatment. Sometimes a person needs antibiotics given in the hospital. More severe cases may require surgery to drain fluid from the infection.

Image credit: Andre Riemann, 2006.

A stye is an infection in the eyelid, usually in an eyelash follicle or one of the oil glands of the eyelid.

Bacteria can cause a stye that may occur if a person touches their eye with unwashed hands or after touching their nose.

A stye may appear on the eyelash line or just inside the edge of the eyelid.

Symptoms include:

  • a red, painful lump
  • a bump that looks like a pimple or boil
  • soreness or scratchiness on the eyelid or eyelash area

Diagnosis and treatment

Most styes will clear on their own with home care.

A person can use a warm compress for 15 minutes, four times a day. They can also gently massage the nodule.

Learn more about how to get rid of a stye here.

Image credit: clubtable, 2012.

Blepharitis is inflammation of the eyelids. Causes include bacterial infection, allergies, clogged oil glands in the eyelids, and certain skin conditions.

There are two main types of blepharitis:

  • Anterior blepharitis: This affects the eyelash area, and dandruff or bacteria can be the cause.
  • Posterior blepharitis: This affects the inner eyelid. Problems with the oil glands in the eyelids can cause this type. Other causes include acne, rosacea, and seborrheic dermatitis.

Symptoms of blepharitis are:

  • redness and swelling of the eyelids
  • itchiness in the eyelid
  • watery eyes
  • burning or stinging in the eyes
  • feeling of an object or grit in the eye
  • eyelids that appear greasy
  • flaky skin around the eyes
  • crusty eyelashes or lashes sticking together
  • sensitivity to light

Diagnosis and treatment

A doctor may diagnose blepharitis through an eye exam and discussion of symptoms.

Blepharitis symptoms respond to home care. Regular cleaning of the eyelids and eyelashes with water and baby shampoo is helpful.

If a person has dandruff or rosacea, they can talk to a doctor about effective treatment for these conditions to help keep blepharitis under control.

Severe cases of blepharitis may require antibiotics or steroids.

Uveitis is inflammation of the uvea, which is the middle layer of the eyeball that contains the iris.

Doctors associate uveitis with certain health conditions, including:

Symptoms of uveitis include:

  • redness in one or both eyes
  • sensitivity to light
  • eye pain
  • blurry vision
  • a sudden appearance of particles, or “floaters,” in vision

Diagnosis and treatment

Doctors diagnose uveitis with an eye exam

However, they may also take a person’s health history and order blood and imaging tests, such as an MRI, to check for associated conditions.

Treatment may include steroids in the form of pills, eye drops, or injections. This will depend on the cause of uveitis.

Some eye infections, such as a stye or blepharitis, respond well to home care. However, other eye infections, such as endophthalmitis, are serious and can potentially lead to a permanent loss of vision.

If a person has signs of an eye infection, they should contact a doctor. Severe symptoms, such as extreme pain or a sudden loss of vision, require emergency medical care.

Likewise, if symptoms of a stye, blepharitis, or conjunctivitis fail to improve with home care, people should see a doctor.

There are many different types of eye infections. Most are not a cause for concern. However, some are an ocular emergency, and a person should seek medical help to reduce the chances of vision loss.

If people notice bothersome changes with their eyes or vision, they should speak to a doctor.