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What is Ophthalmia?

By Amanda Barnhart
Updated May 17, 2024
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The term ophthalmia can refer to any inflammation or swelling of the eye, though it is most commonly used to describe severe inflammation associated with an underlying medical condition. Animals, including sheep, goats, horses, dogs, and cats, may also experience eye swelling as the result of an infection or disease. Ophthalmia most commonly affects the conjunctiva, the membrane that moistens and protects the eye and inner eyelid.

While many people experience swollen eyes as a result of allergies, a cold, an insect bite, or other minor problems, inflammation diagnosed as ophthalmia is typically the result of a more serious condition. Any persistent swelling of the eye should be evaluated by a medical professional for a proper diagnosis. This is especially true if it is accompanied by pain or vision changes. Swelling that is not the result of a medical condition can often be treated at home with ice packs or cool compresses applied to the eye, and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen.

Conjunctivitis, commonly referred to as pink eye, is one of the most common causes of ophthalmia. Pink eye usually causes redness and itchiness in combination with noticeable swelling. Bacterial and viral infections are the most common causes of the condition. Bacterial conjunctivitis can be treated with antibiotic eye drops or ointments. Viral infections must clear on their own, which usually takes two or three weeks. Pink eye is extremely contagious so people with the infection should be cautious to avoid touching or rubbing their eyes, and wash their hands regularly.

Neonatal conjunctivitis, or ophthalmia neonatorum, is a bacterial eye infection that can occur in newborns during delivery. Mothers infected with chlamydia or gonorrhea can pass bacteria through the birth canal that may infect the infant’s eyes, leading to redness, swelling, and crusting. The condition is usually treatable with prescription eye drops, but it can lead to blindness if it is not promptly diagnosed and treated.

Sympathetic ophthalmia is a rare condition that occurs after trauma to the eye. Symptoms often do not manifest until several months, or even years, after an injury. Often the only signs of the condition are floating spots that cloud the individual’s field of vision, and swelling of the uvea, or the middle layer of the eye. Sympathetic ophthalmia often leads to complete vision loss. Surgery and anti-inflammatory medications may be used to reduce swelling and attempt to preserve vision.

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