Eye Infection: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Medically Reviewed By Katherine E. Duncan, MD
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Eye infections are almost always the result of either a virus or bacterial infection. Eye infections often cause redness, irritation, tearing, and itchiness. You can get an eye infection from a virus or bacteria normally found on your skin or one that does not usually inhabit your skin. In these cases, you usually get an eye infection from another person by rubbing your eye after shaking hands or touching common objects. You can also get an eye infection by sharing cosmetics, towels, or pillows.

Keep reading to learn about common causes of eye infections and what to do about them.

Conjunctivitis

A woman rubbing her left eye with her hand
Ana Luz Crespi/Stocksy United

Conjunctivitis may be allergic, infectious, or chemical.

Allergic type

Allergic conjunctivitis is more common in people who experience seasonal allergies, such as hay fever. It can trigger symptoms that irritate their eyes.

Giant papillary conjunctivitis is allergic conjunctivitis that happens when someone has something constantly in their eye. For example, people might be more likely to develop this condition if they wear hard contact lenses or have a suture or false eye.

Infectious type

Bacterial conjunctivitis usually happens due to staphylococcal or streptococcal bacteria. This can come from insects, physical contact with other people, poor hygiene, or affected makeup products.

Viral conjunctivitis is the most common type of conjunctivitis. It comes from the same viruses that cause people to experience colds. If you are near someone coughing or sneezing due to a cold, you may experience viral conjunctivitis.

In some cases, forcefully blowing your nose can cause mucus with the virus to move from your sinuses to your tear ducts and eyes if you have a cold yourself.

Ophthalmia neonatorum happens in newborn infants and is a severe type of infectious conjunctivitis. It can happen if an infant comes into contact with chlamydia or gonorrhea while passing through the birth canal. It can cause permanent eye damage.

Chemical type

Irritants such as air pollution, chlorine in swimming pools, and exposure to harmful chemicals can cause chemical conjunctivitis.

Treatment for conjunctivitis

Treatment for conjunctivitis will depend on its type but can involve:

  • removing the irritant, treating the underlying infection or virus, or improving hygiene
  • topical steroid drops
  • flushing the eyes with saline solution
  • oral antihistamines
  • anti-inflammatory medications

Learn when to see a doctor for conjunctivitis.

Stye

Stye causes a small, pimple-like swollen area on the eyelid, usually close to the eye itself. There may be pus, and it may be painful and cause irritation. It is an acute bacterial infection usually due to S aureus bacteria. It may:

  • rupture and the drain
  • happen alongside conjunctivitis or blepharitis
  • cause a chalazion, which looks like a red bump on your eyelid

Styes usually go away by themselves within 1–2 weeks.

Treatment for stye

Treatment and management tips for styes can include:

  • using warm compresses
  • vertically massaging the eyelid gently

Contact a doctor for topical antibiotics if it does not improve after a couple of days, starts draining or worsening.

Learn when to see a doctor for a stye.

Keratitis

The most common infection from wearing contact lenses is keratitis. It happens when the cornea becomes infected. The cornea is the clear covering over the eye. This infection may cause cornea scarring, so it is important to seek treatment if you think you may have keratitis.

Causes include:

  • using extended-wear contact lenses
  • sleeping with contact lenses in
  • microbes building up under the lens
  • herpes virus
  • certain bacteria, fungi, or parasites
  • lack of hygiene regarding lenses or the contact lens solution

Treatment for keratitis

Treatment for keratitis will involve referral to an ophthalmologist for topical antibiotics, steroid, or oral antiviral medications, such as aciclovir or valaciclovir, and further monitoring until the infection has resolved.

Timely treatment can reduce the risk of serious complications, including ulcers and blindness.

Learn about corneal ulcers from keratitis.

What are the symptoms of an eye infection?

You may experience all or just a few of these symptoms, and at times any of these symptoms can be severe. Symptoms include:

  • burning feeling
  • crusting on eyelid margins
  • discharge from the eye
  • eye pain
  • eyelids or eyelashes stuck together when you wake up
  • the feeling of grittiness or sand in your eye
  • increased sensitivity to light
  • increased tear production
  • itchy eyes
  • red, sore eyes (bloodshot eyes)
  • swelling of your eyelids and the skin around your eye

When should you see a doctor for eye infection?

You should always contact a doctor if you think you may have an eye infection or if you have eye symptoms that are persistent or worsening.

In some cases, eye infections can be a serious condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting.

What are the risk factors for an eye infection?

Many factors increase the risk of developing eye infections. Not all people with risk factors will get eye infections. Risk factors for infections include:

  • allergies that inflame the eye
  • contact lens wear, especially when used for extended periods or without proper cleaning and storage
  • exposure to others with eye infections
  • infection with a common cold
  • irritation in the eyes
  • use of shared cosmetics, personal care items, or linens

How do you prevent eye infections?

Some eye infections are contagious and spread very easily. You can reduce your likelihood of catching or spreading eye infections by following good hygiene practices, including washing your hands frequently.

You may be able to lower your risk of eye infections by:

  • avoiding close contact with people who have eye infections
  • avoiding touching your eyes
  • following your healthcare professional’s instructions on wearing, cleaning, and storing your contact lenses
  • using disposable tissues rather than cloth handkerchiefs
  • washing your hands often

What are the potential complications of an eye infection?

Most eye infections are not serious. However, in some cases, or with preexisting conditions, eye infections may be more serious and jeopardize your vision and health. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your healthcare professional designed specifically for you.

Left untreated, eye infections can lead to serious complications, including:

  • change in the growth or position of the eyelashes, resulting in abrasion and irritation of the eye surface
  • corneal damage and scarring, resulting in vision impairment
  • loss of vision and blindness
  • orbital cellulitis (invasive infection of the soft tissues around the eye)
  • spread of infection

More frequently asked questions

Here are some commonly asked questions about eye infections. Katherine E. Duncan, M.D., has reviewed the answers.

Do eye infections go away on their own?

Eye infections caused by viruses are generally mild and usually resolve on their own within a week or two. An exception is an eye infection caused by the herpes simplex virus, which can be a serious eye infection.

Bacterial eye infections often require antibiotic treatment. Because a serious eye infection can affect vision, it’s important to see a physician if your symptoms are severe or last longer than 2 days.

You should contact your healthcare professional immediately if you have any vision changes.

What is the most common eye infection?

According to a 2018 review, conjunctivitis is the most common eye infection.

What is the fastest way to cure an eye infection?

The fastest way to cure an eye infection will depend on its cause. The fastest way to ease symptoms and diagnose and treat the underlying cause of an eye infection will be to see a medical professional.

Summary

An eye infection is a bacterial or viral infection of the eye or the tissue immediately surrounding the eye.

Common eye infections include conjunctivitis, often called pink eye, which affects the membrane that lines the inside of your eyelids and covers the whites of the eyes, and blepharitis, which affects the eyelid margin.

Although infections of the cornea, the clear “window” over the center of your eye, are not common, they can seriously affect your vision. Contact lenses contribute to eye infections if worn for extended periods or without proper cleaning.

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Medical Reviewer: Katherine E. Duncan, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Oct 29
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.