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6 eye conditions you should know about — and how to treat them

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For such a small area, the eye has a surprising number of ways it can get infected. Here is what you need to know to spot a problem early.
Written by Marcy Lovitch
Updated on October 25, 2022

Pain, swelling, itching, redness. These are worrisome symptoms to have anywhere on your body. But when they show up in one of your eyes (or both), it can seem extra alarming. An eye infection is likely the culprit. It happens to people of all ages. A virus, bacteria, fungus or allergen is often the cause.

Eye infections aren’t hard to spot, which means you can usually get treatment quickly. But it’s helpful to know which conditions are more worrisome than others. Some can pose serious threats, such as loss of vision.

Here are 6 eye conditions and why you might get them — and when you should see the doctor.

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You probably think of conjunctivitis as “pink eye.” But pink eye is just 1 form of the infection, says Gary Cassel, MD, an ophthalmologist in Baltimore and the author of The Eye Book: A Complete Guide to Eye Disorders and Health.

Overall, conjunctivitis is when the conjunctiva, which is the clear tissue covering the white part of your eye and the inside of your eyelids, is inflamed or infected. Among the likely causes are viruses, bacteria, chemical irritants and environmental pollutants such as smoke, dust and fumes.

There are 3 types of conjunctivitis:

Viral conjunctivitis

This is the most common type of conjunctivitis. It can make your eyes appear pink or red, as well as itchy or watery. Viral conjunctivitis is often caused by the same kinds of viruses that cause colds or the flu. But other viruses can cause pink eye, too, including the ones linked to measles and herpes.

Usually, viral conjunctivitis cases are not severe. They will go away on their own in 7 to 14 days. But in some cases, they could take 2 to 3 weeks to clear up. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral drops or a topical medication to speed up the healing. Those might include Zovirax® (acyclovir) or Viroptic® (trifluridine).

An important note: Viral conjunctivitis is easy to give to others. To keep from spreading it, if you have it:

  • Don’t have close contact with your friends or family members.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Try hard not to touch or rub your eyes.
  • Don’t share towels, pillowcases, makeup or eyeglasses with anyone.

Bacterial conjunctivitis

As the name suggests, you get this infection from bacteria instead of a virus. Symptoms include bright red eyes and a thick yellow mucous discharge. It can also spread easily from person to person.

Most cases of bacterial conjunctivitis improve in 2 to 5 days without medication. With more stubborn cases, your doctor may suggest antibiotic eye drops. Those could include Ocuflox® (ofloxacin ophthalmic), Maxitrol® (neomycin, polymyxin B and dexamethasone) or Polytrim® (polymyxin B and trimethoprim ophthalmic).

Allergic conjunctivitis

Your eyes can be sensitive to allergens such as cat hair, mold, dust, pollen and even some eye care products. “Most people who get this have had some allergy-related conditions in the past — issues such as hives, hay fever or asthma,” says Dr. Cassel.

The symptoms include redness, itchiness, excess tearing and swelling. Over-the-counter saline wash and artificial tears may help. There are also stronger antihistamine drops available by prescription. The most common ones are azelastine, emedastine and ketotifen.

How do you know which kind of conjunctivitis you have? It may be hard to tell, since the different types have overlapping signs and symptoms. An eye exam can spot the differences and determine what you should do for treatment, says Jennifer Stone, OD, an optometrist with Levin Eyecare in Baltimore. She recommends scheduling an appointment “for any pink eye type of problem that persists or worsens over a day.”


A stye is a swollen, red, painful bump at the edge of your eyelid. It looks a little like a pimple, says Dr. Cassel. It’s caused when an oil gland gets clogged and becomes infected. Other symptoms include tearing or oozing, a scratchy feeling inside the eye, or crusting on the eyelid.

Styes are usually caused by bacteria called staphylococcus. One of the most common ways the bacteria is spread is by touching your eyes with your hands. (Make sure you’re soaping up before you put in your contact lenses!) The bacteria might also enter your eye via contaminated makeup. Living or working in environments that are dusty or dirty can also lead to a clog, Dr. Stone says.

Typically, styes aren’t serious. Most go away on their own. Treat the symptoms at home by applying a warm, wet cloth to the sore spot for 5 to 10 minutes, 3 to 5 times daily.

Steroid injections or drainage may also be helpful, Dr. Cassel says. “If a swelling of your eyelid persists or recurs, you should check with your eye doctor. You want to make sure that it’s not an unusual infection — or even a form of skin cancer,” he says.

Sometimes a stye can evolve into a painless lump called a chalazion, which is an inflammatory reaction to oily secretions in a clogged gland, says Dr. Cassel. Chalazions generally don’t affect your vision. They’re more of a cosmetic nuisance. But if the lump is in the middle of the upper eyelid, it can flatten the central cornea. And that can distort vision. You’ll want to have it looked at.

Recommended reading: 5 exercises that will help improve your eyesight.


Keratitis is when your cornea (the clear tissue on the front of your eyeball) becomes inflamed. The main symptoms of keratitis are:

  • Red eyes
  • Pain
  • Excessive tearing
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Blurred or decreased vision
  • A feeling that you have something in your eye

There are 2 types of keratitis: infectious and noninfectious. Infectious keratitis is caused by bacteria, fungi, viruses or parasites. The noninfectious kind can happen because of a scratch or injury to your cornea. Another possible cause: using your contact lenses improperly. This includes sleeping in them or putting them in without washing your hands. Allergies may also cause keratitis.

Mild cases of noninfectious keratitis are treated with artificial tears. For more severe cases, the doctor may give you an anti-inflammatory medication. Or they may suggest wearing a bandage to protect the eye.

For the infectious kind, treatments include antibiotic, antiviral or antifungal eye drops or prescription oral medications.

If you think you have keratitis, see your eye doctor immediately. Untreated, this infection can lead to much more serious issues, including scarring of the cornea and temporary or permanent vision loss.

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Endophthalmitis is an infection of the fluids or tissues inside the eyeball. It often happens when bacteria or fungi get into the eye. But sometimes an infection in some other part of the body — the urinary tract, say — travels through your bloodstream to your eyes. It also happens to people who have just had some sort of eye surgery, Dr. Stone says.

The most common symptom is pain that continues to get worse after eye surgery. Symptoms may also include pus or oozing, blurred vision, redness and swollen eyelids.

Endophthalmitis can cause blindness if it’s not treated quickly. Contact your doctor at the first sign of symptoms. You may need an injection of antibiotics or antifungal agents.

Serious cases could require an emergency operation called a vitrectomy. That’s when the ophthalmologist removes the infectious matter from the eye. Then a medication that prevents infection is injected.


Do you ever see crusty, dandruff-like flakes in your eyelashes or on your glasses? If so, it could be a sign of blepharitis, an inflammation of the eyelid. It usually starts near the base of the eyelashes.

Blepharitis occurs because of bacteria on the eyelids. It’s normal to have bacteria on your skin. But too much can cause issues. Blepharitis can also happen if the oil glands in your eyelids clog up. People who have dandruff, oily skin or rosacea have a higher risk of blepharitis.

Other signs of blepharitis include:

  • Eyelid edges that seem to stay red or pink for a long time
  • Eyes and lids that are red, itchy or swollen
  • Burning or stinging in your eyes
  • Eyes that feel gritty
  • Eyelids that feel heavy when you’re reading

Blepharitis can be uncomfortable. But it doesn’t spread to others. And it usually doesn’t cause any lasting damage. It’s hard to get rid of it completely, though. Dr. Stone says you’ll probably have to manage it for the long term and watch out for flare-ups.

Treatment options for blepharitis include oral antibiotics (tetracycline, minocycline or doxycycline), steroid or antibiotic eyedrops such as azithromycin (AzaSite®), antibiotic ointments such as erythromycin, or over-the-counter artificial tears.


Cellulitis is an infection that can affect the eyelids, the area around the eye (preseptal cellulitis) or the eye socket (orbital cellulitis). It can be caused by bacteria or fungi. It can get into your system in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Insect bites
  • A skin wound
  • Dental, head or neck surgery
  • A sinus infection that spreads to the eye area

Some signs of cellulitis include a bulging eye, blurry or double vision, and red eyelids.

Preseptal cellulitis poses less of a danger than orbital cellulitis. With proper antibiotic treatment, preseptal cellulitis almost always improves. Orbital cellulitis is a medical emergency that must be treated immediately. It can lead to vision loss and life-threatening complications. Among them are blood clots, sepsis and meningitis. People with orbital cellulitis are often admitted to the hospital and given intravenous antibiotics. They may also need surgery.

With any eye condition, early treatment is key. You don’t want any level of damage to your vision. To help keep eye infections at bay, Dr. Stone recommends the following:

  • Wash your hands often, especially before handling contacts or eye medications.
  • Don’t rub your eyes.
  • Use a gentle eyelid cleanser to remove any flaking or debris.
  • Make annual eye doctor visits for screenings, early detection and overall monitoring of your eye health (read 8 medical visits you shouldn’t miss).

And if you’ve been prescribed a medication to treat an eye condition, show your pharmacist this free prescription discount card. It could save you up to 80% on your medications.

Additional sources:
Conjunctivitis overview: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Stye overview: Mayo Clinic
Keratitis overview: Johns Hopkins Medicine
Endophthalmitis overview: American Academy of Ophthalmology
Blepharitis overview: National Eye Institute
Cellulitis overview: American Academy of Ophthalmology