The term ‘swollen eyes‘ is often used to describe a range of eye swellings caused by a number of conditions. It is important to first differentiate whether the swelling is around the eye  (above, below or around the eyeball), a swelling of the eyelid or swelling of the eyeball itself. Other signs and symptoms may also assist with identifying the causative factors and this includes an itchy, red eye or darkening of the swelling itself as in trauma or a ‘black eye’.

Causes of Swollen Eyes

There are a number of possible causes for swollen eyes but the more common causes include :

  • Eye strain and/or lack of sleep (‘bags under the eyes’ or ‘baggy eyes’)
  • Dryness of the eye – environmental or pathological
  • Trauma – may be accompanied by redness of the eye and a bluish-black discoloration (black eye).
  • Allergy – accompanied by itching and redness of the eye with a sensation often described as ‘sand in the eyes’. Swelling around the eye is referred to as angioedema and often accompanies acute allergic reactions like hives (urticaria) (1)
  • Chalazion – caused by blockages of tiny glands just under the surface of the eyelid which produce lubricants for the eye.  (2)
  • Cellulitis – usually around the eyeball
  • Blepharitis – affects the lining of the eyelids
  • Conjunctivitis – affects the eyeball and is also called ‘red eye’ or ‘pink eye’
  • Stye (hordeolum)- usually caused by Staphylococcus aureus
  • Eyesight disorders
  • Post-operatively for any eye surgery including lasik surgery.

Symptoms

Apart from a clearly visible swelling of the eye, other signs and symptoms may also be present.

  • Redness of the eye, around the eye or eyelid.
  • Pain and/or itching of the eye itself, corners of the eye, around the eye or itching of the eyelids.
  • Dark discoloration associated with a hematoma as is ‘blue eye’ or ‘black eye’.
  • Blurred or reduced vision
  • Dry or watery (tearing) eyes

Diagnosis & Treatment of Swollen Eyes

Diagnosis is based on a case history and physical examination of the eye. In chronic cases of eye swelling, a consultation with an  opthamologist (eye specialist) is advisable. Specialized opthalmic investigation may be required in cases of cataracts or glaucomas. Infections require immediate medical intervention as prolonged eye infections can damage the eye or even spread to the brain due to the close proximity.

  • Anti-histamines may be used for allergies and itchy red eyes with no evident infection.
  • Antibiotics are required for bacterial infections and this can be taken orally or used as an antimicrobial eye drop. Viral and fungal infections of the eye are also possible and require specialist treatment. (3)
  • Corticosteroids may be used for severe swelling of the eye and surrounding tissue and steroid eye drops can also be used for inflammation of the eyeball.
  • While eyesight disorders may not often cause swelling of the eye, spectacles are advisable for relevant disorders.

Management of Eye Swelling

Always consult with your medical practitioner to exclude any serious pathology that may be causing swelling of the eye. In cases of eye strain, lack of sleep or injury around the eyeball caused by physical injury, a cold compress may be beneficial but should be applied lightly over the closed or covered eye. In cases of eye strain associated with prolonged reading, television or computer use, resting the eyes may also be helpful or changing the focus of the eye by looking at objects at varying distances intermittently. A saline eye drop may be useful for dry eyes although swelling eyes are not often caused by dryness.

References :

1. Hives and angioedema. Mayo Clinic

2. Chalazion. Patient UK

3. Eye Infections. American Academy of Opthamology


Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on April 26, 2014