Blepharitis is inflammation of the edges of the eyelids, possibly with thickening scales, crusts, shallow ulcers, or redness and swelling at the edges of the eyelids.
Disorders that may cause blepharitis include staphylococcal infection of the eyelids or the ducts of the deeper glands that open at the edges of the eyelids, certain viral infections (usually herpes simplex), and allergic reactions (to pollens or sometimes to eye drops). Skin conditions such as seborrheic dermatitis (see Itching and Noninfectious Rashes: Seborrheic Dermatitis) and rosacea (see Itching and Noninfectious Rashes: Rosacea) affect the face including the eyelids, leading to inflammation and blepharitis. Another cause is inflamed, blocked oil glands at the edge of the eyelids (called meibomian gland dysfunction), which can be caused by rosacea. Eye drops can trigger allergic reactions that cause blepharitis (called contact sensitivity allergic blepharitis). Sometimes the inflammation has no known cause.
Blepharitis may cause the feeling that something is in the eye. The eyes and eyelids may itch and burn, and the edges of the eyelids may become red. The eyes may become watery and sensitive to bright light. The eyelids may swell, and some of the eyelashes may turn white or even fall out. Sometimes, small abscesses containing pus (pustules) develop in the sacs at the base of the eyelashes and eventually form shallow ulcers (ulcerative blepharitis). A crust may form and stick tenaciously to the edges of the eyelids. When the crust is removed, the surface may bleed. During sleep, secretions dry and make the eyelids stick together.
Blepharitis tends to recur and stubbornly resist treatment. It is inconvenient and unattractive but usually does not damage the cornea or result in loss of vision. Occasionally, ulcerative blepharitis can result in a loss of the eyelashes, scarring of the eyelid margins, and, rarely, even inflammation affecting the cornea.
Diagnosis is usually based on the symptoms and the appearance of the eyelids. A doctor may use a slit lamp (see Diagnosis of Eye Disorders: What Is a Slit Lamp?) to examine the eyelids more closely. Occasionally, a sample of material is taken from the edges of the eyelids and is cultured to identify the type of bacteria causing the infection and determine how sensitive it is to commonly used antibiotics.
The problem causing the blepharitis is treated when possible. For example, an eye drop that seems to be causing allergic contact sensitivity blepharitis can be stopped.
For blepharitis caused by seborrheic dermatitis, treatment usually includes keeping the eyelids clean by gently scrubbing the edges of the eyelids twice a day with a wash cloth or cotton swab dipped in a dilute solution of baby shampoo (2 or 3 drops in ½ cup of warm water). When seborrheic dermatitis is the cause, the face and scalp must be treated as well (see Itching and Noninfectious Rashes: Dermatitis). For meibomian gland dysfunction, warm compresses may help the oil to flow from the meibomian oil glands and relieve inflammation, easing the itching and burning. Rosacea that causes meibomian gland dysfunction should also be treated (see Itching and Noninfectious Rashes: Treatment).
To treat ulcerative blepharitis caused by bacteria, a doctor may prescribe an antibiotic ointment, such as bacitracin plus polymyxin B, gentamicin, erythromycin, or sulfacetamide, or an antibiotic taken by mouth (such as doxycycline). A viral blepharitis is treated with antiviral pills (such as valacyclovir) that are effective against herpes simplex, which is the usual cause.
Certain treatments can help relieve symptoms such as irritation. Artificial tears used during the day and lubricating ointments applied at night may help. Symptoms can also be relieved with wet compresses, typically cool for allergic or contact sensitivity blepharitis and warm for all other causes of blepharitis.
Last full review/revision July 2012 by James Garrity, MD