Not all eye infections are created equal. When people think of eye infections the first thing that comes to mind is pink eye. Picture a pink/red eye, swollen lid, and probably some discharge from around the eyeball. While a lot of eye irritation presents in a similar fashion they can have totally different etiologies and require different treatment options. With variation in causes of eye infections it is important to seek care with an eye care professional to start with the most appropriate treatment.
Eye infections can also impact different ocular tissue. The ocular tissues that can be affected are:
- Conjunctiva: The conjunctiva is a membrane that covers the inside of the eye lid and covers the sclera (white part of the eye). The term conjunctivitis refers to a inflammation of this tissue.
- Cornea: The cornea is the clear dome tissue that covers the iris and helps refract light rays into the eye. When the cornea is inflamed or irritated it is called a keratitis.
- Anterior Chamber: The anterior chamber refers to the inside of the eye in front of the iris. Depending on the etiology of the eye irritant it can cause inflammation within the anterior chamber called an iritis or a uveitis.
- Eye lids: The eyelids themselves contain different glands and tissues that are susceptible to infection. They even contain a septal barrier that contains infections to the eyelid and attempts to prevent spread to the area that contains the optic nerve and leads to the brain (pretty important stuff).
As mentioned before, there are a variety of etiologies that cause eye infections. A short list of these causes are as follows:
- Bacterial: Bacterial eye infections are caused by interaction with a contaminated source. The type of bacteria may vary and respond to different delivery methods for the antibiotics (drops versus oral medication). Certain bacteria can be more detrimental to longstanding ocular health, especially if associated with contact lens over-wear and abuse. Pseudomonas is a bacteria that is capable of perforating the cornea. Other bacteria can cause corneal ulcers, which are quite painful.
- Viral: Viral infections are commonly referred to as pink eye in the optometric community. Not all viral infections are pink eye though. Other types of viral eye infections are herpes infections. This is the same virus that is responsible for cold sores around the mouth. The herpes virus generally lies dormant within nerves and can come out of dormancy to cause a herpes keratitis, conjunctivis, or blepharoconjunctivitis (eyelid involvement). The virus responsible for “pink eye” is generally an enterovirus and is highly contagious.
- Fungus: A fungal infection is less common and can occur with contact with an organic material such as plant life. Fungal infections can impact a lot of ocular structures and cause a lot of damage.
- Allergies: While allergies are not an infection they can still present as red, watering, and irritated eyes.
It is important to remember, that the causes of infection vary which means the approach to treatment vary. That's why it is so important to make an appointment with an eye care provider when the eye is irritated. This means an appointment with either an optometrist or an ophthalmologist. Keep in mind time is of the essence especially if light sensitivity, the sensation that something is in the eye, discharge, or pain are associated with the irritation. As with all infections, it is important that the specific type of infection is identified and an appropriate treatment is prescribed as quickly as possible.