What Is an Eye Infection?

ConjunctivitisEye infections can affect one or both eyes, and they may occur at any age, though they are most common in children and young adults. An eye infection is a bacterial or viral infection of the eye or the tissue immediately surrounding the eye. Common eye infections include conjunctivitis (pink eye), which affects the membrane that lines the inside of your eyelids and covers the whites of the eyes, and blepharitis, which affects the eyelid margin. Although infections of the cornea are not common, they can seriously affect your vision.

Some eye infections are highly contagious, and care should be given to not infect other people, or even your other eye. If worn for extended periods or without proper cleaning, contact lenses can contribute to an eye infection.

What Are the Symptoms of an Eye Infection?

You may experience all or just a few of these symptoms, and at times any of these symptoms can be severe.  Symptoms include:

  • Burning feeling
  • Crusting on eyelid margins
  • Discharge from the eye (Yellow, green, bloody, or watery discharge from the eye)
  • Eye pain
  • Eyelids or eyelashes stuck together when you awaken
  • Feeling of grittiness or sand in your eye
  • Increased sensitivity to light
  • Increased tear production
  • Itchy eyes
  • Red, sore eyes (bloodshot eyes)
  • Swelling of your eyelids and the skin around your eye
  • A gray or white sore on the colored part of the eye (iris).
  • Blurred or decreased vision.

In some cases, allergies or irritation can cause symptoms similar to an eye infection.

What causes an eye infection?

Eye infections are almost always caused by either a virus or bacterial infection. You can also get an eye infection from a virus or from a type of bacteria that does not usually inhabit your skin. In these cases, you usually get the eye infection from another person by rubbing your eye after shaking hands or touching common objects after someone who is infected. You can also get an eye infection by sharing cosmetics, towels or pillows.

Infection can also occur after a minor eye injury or a small scratch on the cornea. If untreated, some types of eye infections can damage the eye very quickly.

Infections can be more severe in people who wear contact lenses. If you think you may have an eye infection, remove your contacts and wear your glasses.

Medical treatment for eye infections

Fortunately, most common bacterial eye infections are easily treated and will clear up without any complications, particularly with prompt treatment such as prescription antibiotic eye drops or ointments and compresses.

If you have a bacterial eye infection that does not resolve quickly, your health care provider may prescribe antibiotic ointment or drops. Bacterial infections tend to lead to more discharge from the eye than viral infections do, but only your physician can determine what kind of eye infection you have. Be sure to use any antibiotic exactly as prescribed, and complete the entire treatment even if your eyes feel better, to avoid having your eye infection return.

When to Seek Immediate Medical Care

In some cases, eye infections can be a serious condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. In addition, symptoms that appear to be caused by eye infections may be caused by anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction. Seek immediate medical care if you, or someone you are with, have any of these serious symptoms including:

  • Bulging eyes
  • Extreme sensitivity to light
  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Respiratory or breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or inability to breathe, labored breathing, wheezing, or choking
  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Sudden change in vision, loss of vision, or eye pain

Sudden swelling of the face, lips or tongue