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Iritis: A Closer Look at This Common Cause of Eye Pain

Pain in the eye can be alarming and unsettling. Have you ever heard of iritis? It's a condition marked by inflammation of the front part of the eye and is actually a common cause of...

A woman is at an eye exam with her doctor. They’re off to the right of the frame, and the left of the frame is the eye exam equipment.

Pain in the eye can be alarming and unsettling. Have you ever heard of iritis? It's a condition marked by inflammation of the front part of the eye and is actually a common cause of eye pain. Referred to as "anterior uveitis," iritis occurs when there is swelling around the iris, which is the colored area of the eye.

Iritis should not be taken lightly as it can lead to serious consequences, including blindness. In fact, it is responsible for 30,000 cases of blindness each year. However, it is treatable, so don't hesitate to visit your eye doctor if you experience persistent symptoms.

What Causes Iritis?

Iritis can have various causes. It can be a result of an issue within your eye or an underlying medical condition. Some common medical conditions that can lead to iritis include:

  • Infections: bacterial, viral, fungal, or parasitic
  • Autoimmune diseases: such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and sarcoidosis
  • Cancer: like lymphoma
  • Trauma: such as a hit to the eye, corneal abrasion, or ill-fitting contact lens
  • Medications: like latanoprost, topiramate, ciprofloxacin
  • Stress: while not a direct cause, it can trigger an episode

Any problem affecting the structures in the front of the eye, such as the iris and cornea, can lead to iritis. The eye naturally responds to diseased or injured tissues with an immune response. Inflammation is a part of this process, as the eye tries to heal itself. However, if the inflammation is too strong or prolonged, it can result in scarring and permanent vision loss.

Interestingly, in some cases, the cause of iritis cannot be identified. This is known as idiopathic iritis. It usually occurs when only one eye is affected, and there are no obvious triggers. Approximately 30% of iritis cases fall into this category.

What are the Symptoms of Iritis?

Symptoms of iritis can range from mild to severe. Extreme sensitivity to light may lead you to seek out dark environments. Other common symptoms include:

  • Redness in the eye
  • Excessive tearing
  • Eye pain
  • Blurry vision

What Eye Issues Can be Confused with Iritis?

In the early stages of iritis, when the symptoms are mild, it can easily be mistaken for other conditions. Some common conditions that may mimic iritis include:

  • Conjunctivitis (pink eye): Early stages of conjunctivitis can cause mild tearing and redness. However, you will also notice eye crusting in the morning and mucus-like discharge throughout the day.
  • Dry eyes: Surprisingly, dry eyes can cause tearing due to the eye's natural reflex mechanism. Symptoms of dry eyes should improve after lubricating the eye with artificial tears.
  • Minor irritation: General eye irritation from high winds or rubbing your eye can cause similar symptoms. This can also result in temporary tearing, redness, and mild blurriness.

Given the overlap between iritis and these less serious conditions, it's understandable why some people may ignore the early signs. However, delaying a diagnosis can pose a threat to your vision.

How is Iritis Diagnosed?

To diagnose iritis, you should seek the expertise of an eye care specialist. They will take a thorough history and conduct an examination. A slit lamp, a specialized microscope, is used to take a detailed look at your eye. By shining a thin beam of light at the space between your iris and cornea, your provider can detect any inflammation.

Your eye exam should also include a vision test, eye pressure check, and dilation to examine the back of your eye. Based on these results, your provider will determine if further testing is necessary. It's important to inform them if you experience any fevers, chills, fatigue, cough, shortness of breath, joint pain, diarrhea, blood in stool or urine, skin rash, or oral/genital ulcers.

If an underlying cause is suspected, additional tests, such as blood work or imaging (CT or MRI), may be recommended. In some cases, a culture of eyelid tissues or a sample of fluid from inside the eye may be taken for further analysis.

Can Iritis Affect Both Eyes?

Iritis can affect one or both eyes. If you have a mild case in one eye with no apparent cause, your provider will likely treat it without additional testing. However, if iritis recurs in the same eye or affects both eyes, it could be a sign of an underlying medical condition. Blood testing or imaging may be necessary to identify the cause.

Is Iritis Serious?

If left untreated, iritis can lead to scarring and vision loss, as well as increase the risk of glaucoma due to elevated eye pressure. That's why it's crucial to schedule an eye exam promptly if you experience symptoms lasting more than a few days. Other serious complications of iritis include cataracts, retinal inflammation, inflammation of the vitreous, swelling in the back of the eye (macular edema), and calcium deposits on the cornea.

Early diagnosis and treatment are key to managing iritis and preventing serious complications.

How is Iritis Treated?

The treatment approach for iritis depends on its underlying cause. Steroids and dilating eye drops are commonly prescribed to prevent scarring within the eye. However, it's important to use these medications under the supervision of an eye care provider.

In cases of infection, antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals, or antiparasitic medications may be prescribed. These can be topical eye drops or oral medications.

For chronic cases of iritis, long-term use of steroids or anti-inflammatory medications may be necessary.

Does Iritis Resolve on Its Own?

Yes, in some cases, iritis can resolve on its own, particularly after eye trauma or when the condition has no discernible cause. However, it's crucial to understand that permanent scarring can occur during any episode of iritis. Therefore, seeking treatment is recommended if you experience symptoms.

Remember, your vision is precious, so take care of your eyes and seek medical attention if you suspect any issues.