Our eyes are constantly exposed to a variety of pathogens, but infections occur when the normal defences of the eye are compromised. Eye infections are usually caused by bacteria or viruses.
Some common infections include bacterial conjunctivitis [pink eye], blepharitis [chronic inflammation of the eyelid], and styes [an infection in the tiny oil glands, along the edge of the eyelid, that surround the base of an eyelash].
Identify the source
Here are some possible sources of an eye infection:
- Local [from the eyelids] or remote [from the sinuses]
- Contact lens
- Immune deficiency
- Diseases like diabetes resulting in bacteria growth or viruses
- Cold sores, genital herpes, and other viral infections
- Crowded, unhygienic living conditions
- Poor nutrition, especially a deficiency of vitamin A.
Eye infections can occur in any age group. People who have undergone eye surgery or experienced trauma to the eye are at a higher risk of developing infections. And because some eye infections are highly contagious, those who come in contact with an infected person are also at a much higher risk of getting infected.
Micro-organisms cannot invade an intact, healthy cornea. However, certain conditions can allow an infection to occur. For example, a scratch can leave the cornea open and susceptible to infection. Dry eyes can also decrease the cornea’s protective mechanisms. Injuring the cornea in a farm-like setting or in a place where plant material is present can lead to fungal keratitis, which is of two types.
- Superficial punctate keratitis: It is associated with viral upper respiratory infection [adenoviruses] and is characterised by destruction of pinpoint areas in the outer layer of the cornea [epithelium]. One or both eyes may be affected.
- Acanthamoeba keratitis: This pus-producing condition is very painful. Acanthamoeba is a common source of infection in people who wear soft or rigid contact lenses. It can be found in tap water, soil, and swimming pools.
Look out for indicators
- Bacterial conjunctivitis results in red, itchy eyes that burn and discharge liquid. There may be more watering than usual and your eyes appear swollen.
- Blepharitis causes eye discomfort, redness and watering. Other symptoms include burning, itching, light sensitivity, and an irritating, sandy, gritty sensation that worsens upon awakening. In staphylococcal blepharitis, there is scaling and crusting along the eye lashes.
- Styes usually begin as a red, tender bump and usually come to a head in about three days. The stye then breaks open, drains and heals in about a week.
- Keratitis is commonly found in people who wear contact lenses. Their risk of infection increases as they wear contacts for longer periods. Symptoms include eye pain, redness, decreased vision, and sensitivity to light.
- The severity of your symptoms may depend on the type of bacterium, virus, or fungus that causes the infection. If you experience any of the above symptoms, consult your eye doctor immediately.
Keep infections at bay
Eye infections spread through contact with the eye discharge, which contains the virus or bacteria that caused the infection.
Here are some ways to prevent the spread:
- Do not share eye make-up.
- Wash your hands before and after touching your eyes or face and before and after using medicine in your eyes.
- Do not use eye make-up until the infection is completely cured. If your eye infection was caused by bacteria or a virus, discard the old products.
- Do not wear contact lenses until the infection is cured. Thoroughly clean your lens before wearing them again and replace your lens case.
- Do not sleep with your contact lenses on.
- Do not share eye medicine.
- Do not share towels, linens, pillows, or handkerchiefs. Use clean linens, towels, and washcloths daily.
- Wash your hands and wear gloves if you are looking into someone else’s eye for a foreign object or helping someone else apply an eye medicine.
- Wear eye protection when in the wind, heat, or cold to prevent eye irritation.
- Wear safety glasses when working with chemicals.
- Avoid exposing your eyes to contaminated water.
- Do not share contact lens equipment, containers, or solutions.
Follow the treatment
Effective treatment of an eye infection first depends on its accurate diagnosis. Because some infections can cause serious vision impairment or even blindness, it is important to see an ophthalmologist for diagnosis. Early diagnosis and immediate treatment is key to treatment and prevention.
- Conjunctivitis is highly contagious and treatment may require absence from work or school. Often a general practitioner can prescribe an anti-infective topical solution or ointment for treatment. If you get infected, avoid rubbing and touching your eyes often. Applying warm compresses also has a soothing effect.
- The treatment for blepharitis is similar to the treatment for other eye infections. A warm compress on the infected eye is the most critical element. This therapy removes the eyelid debris, reduces the bacteria and stabilises the tear film by releasing oily secretions from eye glands.
- There are certain basic guidelines that you need to follow for stye infections, which will reduce the seriousness and the duration of the stye.
- Do not wear eye make-up or contact lenses until the stye has healed, and apply warm compresses to the eye several times. If it still does not heal, eye ointments or eye drops, may be needed.
- Talk with a health professional if a stye becomes very painful, grows larger quickly, or continues to drain [particularly if the drainage is pus] or if the redness and swelling around a stye spreads over the eyelid, inside the eyelid, or over the eyeball.
- Treatment for infectious keratitis depends on the underlying cause. Appropriate antibiotic eye drops such as anti-bacterial, antiviral, or antifungal agents can be used as prescribed. In certain cases, oral antibiotics can also help treat the infection.
These simple pointers should help you manage eye infections and keep your eyeshealthy.