Eye Swelling

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is eye swelling?

Swelling around the eyes is a common symptom of allergy, infection, inflammation, or even physical irritation. The medical term for swelling involving the skin around the eyes is periorbital edema. Chemosis is the term used to describe swelling of the outer coats of the eyeball (common with eye allergies). Eye swelling results from excess fluid (edema) escaping from inflamed blood vessels into the soft tissues surrounding the eyes. It may occur in conditions affecting the eye area itself or in association with more generalized conditions, such as colds or hay fever.

Inflammation of the surface of the eye (conjunctivitis) and inflammation of the eyelids (blepharitis) are common causes of swollen eyes. Other common causes include crying, lack of sleep, or excessive rubbing of the eyes. Wearing contact lenses can also result in eye swelling. Depending on the cause, swelling may occur in one or both eyes, and it may be accompanied by redness, pain, itching, excessive tear production, or other types of discharge from the affected eyes.

Allergic reactions can lead to swelling of both eyes and, sometimes, of the entire face, especially in severe cases such as anaphylactic reactions. In rare cases, eye swelling is a symptom of serious infections of the soft tissues around or behind the eye, such as orbital cellulitis. The thyroid condition known as Graves’ disease may be accompanied by swelling of the conjunctiva (chemosis) in addition to bulging eyes (proptosis). Injuries or trauma to the eyes, including corneal abrasions, orbital bone fracture, and foreign bodies in the eye, can all lead to swelling.

Eye swelling can be a sign of a serious condition. Seek prompt medical care if eye swelling is persistent or causes you concern. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you experience eye swelling along with facial swelling, difficulty breathing, or fever, or if you experience eye swelling as a result of head injury or trauma. Other symptomsthat require immediate medical care include swelling around the eye with fever, chills, pus, or redness around the eye. These are symptoms of orbital cellulitis, which, left untreated, can rapidly lead to serious complications, such as meningitis or a blood infection.

What other symptoms might occur with eye swelling?

Eye swelling may be accompanied by other symptoms, depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the eyes may also involve other body systems.

Eye symptoms that may occur along with eye swelling

Eye swelling may accompany other symptoms affecting the eye area including:

  • Bruising

  • Bulging of the eyeball (proptosis)

  • Excessive tear production

  • Eyelid retraction (lids wide open - especially in hyperthyroid state)

  • Eyelashes or eyelids stuck together when you awaken

  • Inability to tolerate bright light

  • Itching

  • Lumps or nodules of the eyelid or skin

  • Pain or tenderness

  • Pus or discharge

  • Redness

  • Vision changes, such as blurred vision, floaters, loss of vision

Other symptoms that may occur along with eye swelling

Eye swelling may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, eye swelling may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of the following symptoms:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness

  • Change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations, and delusions 

  • Eyelid swelling after head trauma

  • General swelling (edema)

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Itching in the throat or mouth

  • Protruding or bulging eye(s) (proptosis) with redness, fever and pain 

  • Respiratory or breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, wheezing, not breathing, or choking

  • Severe headache

  • Sudden change in vision, loss of vision, or eye pain

  • Sudden swelling of the face, lips or tongue

What causes eye swelling?

Eye swelling results from excess fluid in the soft tissues surrounding the eye. Allergic reactions are a common cause of eye swelling. Such reactions may be caused by pollen (hay fever), animal dander, foods, or medicines.

Infections that cause inflammation of the eyelids or the conjunctiva (surface) of the eye are also common causes of swollen eyes. Infections may occur in one or both eyes and may be caused by viruses or bacteria. The condition often called pink eye is a contagious form of conjunctivitis caused by a viral infection. Cysts and infections of the small glands surrounding the eye and eyelashes are causes of localized bumps or swelling of the eye area. Swelling can also result from injury of the bones or tissues around or in the eyes.

Allergic causes of eye swelling

Allergic reactions are a common cause of eye swelling. Examples include:

Inflammatory causes of eye swelling

Cysts, infections or irritation can cause inflammation in different structures of the eye, and many of these conditions lead to swelling of the eyes including:

  • Bacterial infection
  • Blepharitis (inflammation of the eyelid margin)
  • Conjunctivitis (inflammation of the eye surface)
  • Corneal abrasion or ulcer (keratitis)
  • Orbital inflammatory disease (orbital pseudotumor, reactive hyperplasia)
  • Periorbital cellulitis (infection of the eyelids or other soft tissue around the eyes)
  • Sinusitis (inflammation or infection of the sinuses)
  • Stye or hordeolum (localized bacterial infection of an oil gland or eyelash follicle in the eyelid margin)
  • Viral infection

Traumatic causes of eye swelling

Eye swelling can also be caused by trauma to any part of the eye or eye socket (orbit). Examples include:

  • Blunt trauma
  • Corneal abrasion or ulcer
  • Foreign objects or materials in the eye, such as dirt or soap
  • Head injury
  • Hematoma (collection of blood in body tissues)
  • Insect bite or sting
  • Orbital bone fracture (fracture of the bone surrounding the eye)

Serious or life-threatening causes of eye swelling

In some cases, facial and eye swelling may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Examples include:

  • Anaphylaxis (life-threatening allergic reaction)
  • Orbital cellulitis (invasive infection of the soft tissues around the eye)
  • Skull fracture

Questions for diagnosing the cause of eye swelling

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your eye swelling including:

  • How long has your eye swelling been present?
  • Did you experience an injury to your eye or face?
  • Are you experiencing any other symptoms, such as pain or loss of sensation?
  • Is your vision affected by the eye swelling?

What are the potential complications of eye swelling?

Left untreated, some infections and inflammatory conditions of the eyes can lead to serious complications including:

  • Cellulitis (infection of the skin and underlying tissues)
  • Chronic eye discomfort or pain
  • Encephalitis (inflammation and swelling of the brain due to a viral infection or other causes)
  • Meningitis (infection or inflammation of the sac around the brain and spinal cord)
  • Vision disturbances
  • Vision loss
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 8
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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.
  1. Conjunctivitis (pink eye). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/conjunctivitis/index.html
  2. Graves disease. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000358.htm