An eye infection may be caused by a virus, bacteria, an allergic reaction or another inflammatory process. Eye infections are common among people of all ages, especially during the flu and allergy seasons. In addition to infections located in the eye, an infection may be present in the eyelid or its edge. Conjunctivitis and blepharitis, i.e. infections of the conjunctiva and the eyelids, respectively, are related dryness in the eyes, and they become more common with age.
Some cases of eye infection subside spontaneously, whereas some cases require an urgent examination and treatment performed by an ophthalmologist.
Symptoms of eye infection
There are different types of eye infections, so the cause is often determined on the basis of the symptoms.
Common symptoms of eye infection include:
• red eyes
• wetness and suppuration in the eyes
• feeling of debris in the eye
If your eye is red and you do not experience any symptoms of a common cold, for example, the condition is most likely caused by a broken blood vessel (haematoma) in the conjunctiva, and it does not require any treatment. The haematoma is a red spot in the white part of the eye’s conjunctiva, usually located in a very specific area or extending over the entire conjunctiva.
However, if both of your eyes are red during a common cold, the condition is most likely caused by viral conjunctivitis, and it will subside in a few days with the common cold.
If your eye is red, suppurative and there is a burning sensation in your eye, the symptoms often indicate the presence of bacterial conjunctivitis. This condition is commonly treated with antibiotic eye drops, but it may also subside spontaneously. The onset of bacterial conjunctivitis may occur after a viral infection or through direct contact with the hands of an infected person.
The possibility of a more serious eye disease must be examined if
• you have experienced an eye injury and the eye is red
• the eye is red and sore
• vision of the eye is impaired
If you experience severe pain in a red eye or if the symptoms are associated with impaired vision, you should always see a doctor as soon as possible for an examination.
Infections may also occur around the eyes without being located in the actual eye. For example, blepharitis is an infection of the eye that may be associated with dry eyes and eye irritation. A stye, also known as hordeolum, is a sore and red spot in the eyelid that can cause a watery eye or irritation of the eye.
Sequelae of eye infections
Similar to an otitis, conjunctivitis is a bacterial sequela of a common cold. Conjunctivitis is not harmful to the eye, but it is recommended to treat it with antibiotic eye drops or ointments.
How is an eye infection transmitted?
Eye infections are basically transmitted the same way as the common cold – through airborne transmission or contact. Viral infections will continue to spread as long as the virus is infectious. Bacterial infections spread through contact when a sufficient amount of bacteria are transmitted through hand contact onto a conjunctiva that has already been affected by a viral infection, for example.
Maintaining good hand hygiene, avoiding picking your nose and eyes, treating allergic symptoms and treating dry eyes in the elderly are the most effective modes of preventing the transmission of eye infections.
Eye infections in children
Families with children are prone to experience eye infections whenever a common cold occurs in the family. Eye infections in children are easily transmitted between children through hand contact. Consequently, pharmacological treatment of bacterial infections in children is often recommended in order to avoid further infections.
Children under 6 months have a common cold very rarely, so the most likely way a baby can become infected with a bacterial eye infection is through contact with an older sibling.
Learn more: Eye infections in children (in Finnish)
How is an eye infection diagnosed?
Doctors can diagnose viral and bacterial cases of conjunctivitis by examining the eye, cornea and conjunctiva and assessing the patient’s visual acuity, the condition of their eyelids and the symptoms reported by the patient. In some cases, an eye culture test can also be performed.
If the symptoms are not associated with pain or loss of vision, an eye infection can also be diagnosed effortlessly through the Mehiläinen Digital Clinic. Doctors are able to make almost as accurate diagnoses remotely as at an appointment if the symptoms are described and the required photos are sent through the Digital Clinic.
Treatment of eye infections
The treatment of eye infections is symptomatic. If the eye is suppurative, it should be washed with warm water. If the skin on the eyelid is irritated, a skin cream can be applied.
Viral conjunctivitis does not require treatment, as, in most cases, it will subside along with the common cold. Bacterial conjunctivitis will also subside spontaneously in most cases, but antibiotic eye drops can be applied to speed up the process.
When should you see a doctor?
You should seek medical attention urgently if you experience pain in the eye or a loss of vision. If an eye infection persists after the symptoms of the common cold have subsided, it is recommended to visit a doctor.
When can you go back to work, school or daycare?
Conjunctivitis in itself does not place any restrictions on life, but the need for sick leave is determined on the basis of the symptoms of the common cold and your general condition. Small children in daycare should stay at home for one day after the initiation of antibiotic therapy in order to ensure that the disease is no longer infectious.
Expert consulted for the article Ari Rosenvall, M.D., Specialist in General Practice.