Eye Health

Updated 26 June 2013

Common eye infections – when to consult an optometrist

Eye infections are a regular occurrence. There are many causes, but if treated without delay, discomfort and negative effects on vision can be avoided.

Eye infections are common and regularly happen to almost everyone. They have many causes, but timeous treatment can minimise discomfort and avoid negative effects on vision. This article explains some of the most common eye infections, including conjunctivitis, keratitis, blepharitis and styes.

Conjunctivitis or “pink eye” is when the clear layer that covers the white part of your eye (the sclera) becomes infected. It can occur in only one eye, both eyes, or start with one eye and spread to the other eye. Conjunctivitis can be caused by viral, bacterial or fungal agents. Symptoms include redness, itchiness, teary eyes, light sensitivity and ocular irritation (a feeling like grains of sand stuck under the eyelids). Conjunctivitis usually resolves within a few days and can be treated with self-medication. Anti-histamine eye drops will help treat the symptoms of itchy eyes. Anti-bacterial ointment will help with symptoms of ocular discomfort. If, however, the condition does not improve, seek help from your optometrist.

Blepharitis is inflammation of the eyelids. The eyelids cover and protect your eyes. You may experience scratchy, red, dry eyes with slightly swollen, red, irritated eyelids. In severe cases the eyelashes stick together and vision may even be affected. Blepharitis has many causes. It can be caused by a bacterial infection, malfunction of the oil glands in the eyelids, dandruff, or even mites or lice. It is best treated by a combination of tear lubricant, anti-bacterial ointment and good hygiene. Consult your optometrist for proper treatment of this infection, especially if it is recurrent.

Keratitis is inflammation of the clear layer (the cornea) that covers the coloured part of your eye (the iris). Corneal infections are usually painful. 

Other symptoms include light sensitivity and teary eyes. This can present with corneal ulcers, corneal scars and, if not treated properly, complete opacification (whitening) of the cornea.

Keratitis is mostly caused by a virus, such as the herpes viruses (herpes simplex and herpes zoster) and the virus that causes chlamydia. It can also be caused by a penetrating injury to the eye or water contaminated with bacteria or fungus.

Contact lens wearers can also develop keratitis from contaminated lenses, e.g. contact lenses that are not properly cleaned or wearing contact lenses while swimming. If you have symptoms of keratitis, you should seek optometric help immediately. If keratitis is not properly treated it can result in the permanent loss of vision.

Minimise the occurrence

A stye (also known as external or internal hordeolum) presents as a raised red ‘bump’ on or under the eyelid.

Similar to a stye is a chalazion. It presents as a painless red ‘bump’ and is usually formed inside the lid and not at the lid margin like a stye.

If you have a stye, your eyelid may be tender, itchy and red. Eyes may also be teary and sensitive to light.

In severe cases, pus builds up in the centre, causing the stye to be more painful and discomforting. Styes are usually caused by blockage of the glands of your eyelids (the glands of Zeiss or the glands of Moll), caused by bacterial infection.

People who suffer from chronic blepharitis are more prone to developing styes. Make-up can also cause a stye, especially if not removed properly.

A stye may look unappealing and be painful, but it is mostly a harmless infection that resolves on its own in a few days with self-medication.

Topical anti-bacterial eye ointment and a tear supplement may be useful in treating the symptoms.

Practice good ocular (and general) hygiene, live a healthy lifestyle and visit your optometrist regularly to minimise the occurrence of eye infections.

Cara Bouwer (SAOA member)

To find your nearest SAOA optometrist, log onto or contact 087 310 7262


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Megan Goodman qualified as an optometrist from the University of Johannesburg. She has recently completed a Masters degree in Clinical Epidemiology at Stellenbosch University. She has a keen interest in ocular pathology and evidence based medicine as well as contact lenses.

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