Eye infections are caused by microorganisms like bacteria, viruses or fungi. These invade some part of the eyeball or surrounding area. The infection may be on the clear front part of the eye (cornea) or the thin, moist membrane that lines the outer eye and inner eyelids, called the conjunctiva. Babies can get sexually transmitted eye infections at birth when the mother has an untreated sexually transmitted disease, but most children and adults get them through direct contact -- a finger, foreign matter or something similar in the eye.
Most eye infections are not serious and will clear up with treatment. However, they can cause corneal ulcers, which can lead to severe vision loss if not treated. If the infection gets into the deeper portions of the eye, it may cause endophthalmitis, which can also affect the sight. Orbital cellulitis is an infection of the soft tissue around the eyelids, which can spread rapidly if not treated promptly.
People with an eye infection typically have red, watery eyes, although occasionally an infection can cause dry eyes. The eyes or the area around them may be swollen. Itching and discharge of the eye may occur, and the eyes may be painful. Sometimes the eyes may be “glued shut” with dried drainage, especially first thing in the morning. Patients may complain of sensitivity to light or blurry vision.
Treatment depends on whether the infection is caused by viruses, bacteria or fungi. Bacteria are treated with antibiotics, while viral infections usually resolve on their own. However, anti-viral eye drops are available for severe infections. Fungal infections are treated with fungicides. In some cases, oral medications are also used. People who wear contacts must leave them out until the infection is completely eradicated, but this is not an issue for those who wear glasses.
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