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Corneal ulcers and infections

The cornea is the clear (transparent) tissue at the front of the eye. A corneal ulcer is an erosion or open sore in the outer layer of the cornea. It is often caused by infection.

Alternative Names

Bacterial keratitis; Fungal keratitis; Acanthamoeba keratitis; Herpes simplex keratitis

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Corneal ulcers are most commonly caused by an infection with bacteria, viruses, fungi, or a parasite.

  • Acanthamoeba keratitis occurs in contact lens users, especially in people who make their own homemade cleaning solutions.
  • Fungal keratitis can occur after a corneal injury involving plant material, or in people with a suppressed immune system.
  • Herpes simplex keratitis is a serious viral infection. It may cause repeated attacks that are triggered by stress, esposure to sunlight, or any condition that impairs the immune system.

Corneal ulcers or infections may also be caused by:

  • Eyelids that do not close all the way, such as with Bell's palsy
  • Foreign bodies in the eye
  • Scratches (abrasions) on the eye surface
  • Severely dry eyes
  • Severe allergic eye disease
  • Various inflammatory disorders

Contact lens wear, especially soft contact lenses worn overnight, may cause a corneal ulcer.

Corneal injury
Corneal injury

Symptoms

Symptoms of infection or ulcers of the cornea include:

Signs and tests

Blood tests to check for inflammatory disorders may also be needed.

Treatment

Treatment for corneal ulcers and infections depends on the cause. Treatment should be started as soon as possible to prevent scarring of the cornea.

If the exact cause is not known, patients may be given antibiotic drops that work against many kinds of bacteria.

Once the exact cause is known, drops that treat bacteria, herpes, other viruses, or a fungus are prescribed. Severe ulcers sometimes require a corneal transplant.

Corticosteroid eye drops may be used to reduce swelling and inflammation in certain conditions.

Your health care provider may also recommend that you:

  • Avoid eye makeup
  • Don't wear contact lenses at all, or don't wear them at night
  • Take pain medications
  • Wear an eye patch to keep out light and help with symptoms
  • Wear protective glasses

Expectations (prognosis)

Many people recover completely from corneal ulcers or infections, or they have only a minor change in vision.

However, a corneal ulcer or infection can cause long-term damage to the cornea and affect vision.

Complications

Untreated corneal ulcers and infections may lead to:

  • Loss of the eye (rare)
  • Severe vision loss
  • Scars on the cornea

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if:

  • You have symptoms of corneal ulcers or an infection
  • You have been diagnosed with this condition and your symptoms become worse after treatment

Prevention

Getting treated for an eye infection by an ophthalmologist right away may prevent ulcers from forming. Wash hands and pay very close attention to cleanliness while handling contact lenses. Avoid wearing contact lenses overnight.

References

Groos Jr. EB. Compliations of Contact Lenses. In: Tasman W, Jaeger EA, eds. Duane's Ophthalmology On DVD-ROM. 1st ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2012: chap 27.

Yanoff M, Cameron D. Diseases of the visual system. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 431.

McLeod SD. Bacterial keratitis. In: Yanoff M, Duker JS, eds. Ophthalmology. 3rd ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby Elsevier;2008:chap 4.12.

McLeod SD. Fungal keratitis. In: Yanoff M, Duker JS, eds. Ophthalmology. 3rd ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby Elsevier;2008:chap 4.13.

Tuli SS. Herpes simplex keratitis. In: Yanoff M, Duker JS, eds. Ophthalmology. 3rd ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby Elsevier;2008:chap 4.15.

Soukiasian S. Peripheral ulcerative keratitis. In: Yanoff M, Duker JS, eds. Ophthalmology. 3rd ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby Elsevier;2008:chap 4.16.

Bouchard CS. Noninfectious keratitis. In: Yanoff M, Duker JS, eds. Ophthalmology. 3rd ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby Elsevier;2008:chap 4.17.

Updated: 9/3/2012

Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington; and Franklin W. Lusby, MD, Ophthalmologist, Lusby Vision Institute, La Jolla, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.


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