Eyelid Swelling: A Merck Manual of Patient Symptoms podcast
Eyelid swelling can be unilateral or bilateral. It may be asymptomatic or accompanied by itching or pain.
Eyelid swelling has many causes (see Table 7: Symptoms of Ophthalmologic Disorders: Some Causes of Eyelid Swelling). It usually results from an eyelid disorder but may result from disorders in and around the orbit or from systemic disorders that cause generalized edema.
The most common causes are allergic, including
Focal swelling of one eyelid is most often caused by a chalazion.
The most immediately dangerous causes are orbital cellulitis and cavernous sinus thrombosis (rare).
In addition to the disorders listed in Table 7: Symptoms of Ophthalmologic Disorders: Some Causes of Eyelid Swelling, eyelid swelling may result from the following:
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History of present illness should ascertain how long swelling has been present, whether it is unilateral or bilateral, and whether it has been preceded by any trauma (including insect bites). Important accompanying symptoms to identify include itching, pain, headache, change in vision, fever, and eye discharge.
Review of systems should seek symptoms of possible causes, including runny nose, itching, rash, and wheezing (systemic allergic reaction); headache, nasal congestion, and purulent nasal discharge (sinusitis); toothache (dental infection); dyspnea, orthopnea, and paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea (heart failure); cold intolerance and changes in skin texture (hypothyroidism); and heat intolerance, anxiety, and weight loss (hyperthyroidism).
Past medical history should include recent eye injury or surgery; known heart, liver, renal, or thyroid disease; and allergies and exposure to possible allergens. Drug history should specifically include use of ACE inhibitors.
Vital signs should be assessed for fever and tachycardia.
Eye inspection should assess the location and color of swelling (erythematous or pale), including whether it is present on one eyelid, both eyelids, or both eyes and whether it is tender, warm, or both. The examiner should observe whether the finding represents edema of the eyelids, protrusion of the globe (proptosis), or both. Eye examination should particularly note visual acuity and range of extraocular motion (full or limited). This examination can be difficult when swelling is marked but is important because deficits suggest an orbital or retro-orbital disorder rather than an eyelid disorder; an assistant may be required to hold the eyelids open. Conjunctivae are examined for injection and discharge. Any eyelid or eye lesions are evaluated using a slit lamp.
General examination should assess signs of toxicity, suggesting a serious infection, and signs of a causative disorder. Facial skin is inspected for dryness and scales (which may suggest hypothyroidism) and greasy scales or other signs of seborrheic dermatitis. Extremities and the presacral area are examined for edema, which suggests a systemic cause. If a systemic cause is suspected, see Symptoms of Cardiovascular Disorders: Edema for further discussion of the evaluation.
The following findings are of particular concern:
Interpretation of findings
Some findings help distinguish among categories of disorders. The first important distinction is between inflammation or infection and allergy or fluid overload. Pain, redness, warmth, and tenderness suggest inflammation or infection. Painless, pale swelling suggests angioedema. Itching suggests allergic reaction, and absence of itching suggests cardiac or renal dysfunction.
Swelling localized to one eyelid in the absence of other signs is rarely caused by a dangerous disorder. Massive swelling of the eyelids of one or both eyes should raise suspicion of a serious problem. Signs of inflammation, proptosis, loss of vision, and impaired extraocular movements suggest an orbital disorder (eg, orbital cellulitis, cavernous sinus thrombosis) that may be pushing the globe forward or affecting the nerves or muscles. Other suggestive and specific findings are listed in Table 7: Symptoms of Ophthalmologic Disorders: Some Causes of Eyelid Swelling.
In most cases, diagnosis can be established clinically and no testing is necessary. If orbital cellulitis or cavernous sinus thrombosis is suspected, diagnosis and treatment should proceed as rapidly as possible. Immediate imaging with CT or MRI should be done. If cardiac, liver, renal, or thyroid dysfunction is suspected, organ function is evaluated with laboratory tests and imaging as appropriate for that system.
Treatment is directed at the underlying disorder. There is no specific treatment for the swelling.
Last full review/revision November 2012 by Kathryn Colby, MD, PhD