Chemosis of the conjunctiva is a type of eye inflammation. The condition occurs when the lining of the eyelids swells. This transparent lining, called the conjunctiva, also covers the surface of the eye. The swelling of the conjunctiva is a sign that your eye has become irritated. The condition is more often simply referred to as “chemosis.”
This condition is most often related to allergies, but may be caused by a viral or bacterial infection. However, chemosis is not contagious, meaning that you cannot catch it from another person.
The primary cause of chemosis is irritation. The ways in which your eye becomes irritated may vary. Allergies play a role in eye irritation and chemosis. Seasonal allergies or allergic reactions to pets are the main culprits. Animal dander and pollen can make your eyes water, appear red, and ooze a yellow-colored discharge. This condition is called allergic conjunctivitis. You can develop both conjunctivitis and chemosis as a result of allergies.
Chemosis of the conjunctiva can also be associated with angioedema, a form of allergic reaction in which your skin swells. Unlike hives—a swelling on the surface of your skin—angioedema swelling occurs underneath your skin.
Eye infections, such as viral or bacterial conjunctivitis, can also lead to chemosis in some people. You can also have chemosis after eye surgery, or as a result of hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroidism is a condition in which your thyroid gland overproduces hormones. According to Columbia University’s Edward S Harkness Eye Institute, some people with overactive thyroids experience eye-related symptoms, including chemosis (Columbia University).
Rubbing your eyes too much or too often can also cause chemosis.
Chemosis occurs because the membrane lining your eyes and eyelids accumulates fluid. Symptoms may include:
- watery eyes
- excessive tearing
- blurry or double vision
You might not be able to close your eyes completely during a bout of chemosis. This is due to the swelling of the eyelids.
Some people do not have any symptoms of chemosis other than inflammation.
Call your doctor if you have eye pain or show signs of a severe allergic reaction. Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction include changes in breathing or heart rate, wheezing, and swelling of the lips or tongue.
This condition can most often be diagnosed with a physical examination of the affected eye(s). Your doctor may also ask questions about the length and severity of your symptoms. Be sure to give your doctor detailed information about your symptoms, as well as any allergies you may have, as this will help better guide treatment.
The key to treating chemosis is reducing the inflammation. Managing the swelling can reduce discomfort and minimize any negative impact on your vision. Your doctor may prescribe medicated eye drops to lubricate your membranes. Depending on the severity of your condition, you may be directed to use an over-the-counter lubricant instead. Cool compresses placed over the eyes may also be recommended to ease discomfort and inflammation.
Your doctor may also instruct you to stop wearing contact lenses during treatment to avoid further irritation.
If chemosis is caused by allergies, antihistamines may be recommended. These medications reduce your body’s reaction to allergens. An allergen is a substance that your body sees as potentially harmful. When your body encounters an allergen, such as dust or pet dander, it produces histamines to help fight off the perceived intruder. Antihistamines can help suppress this immune response and reduce symptoms like irritation and swelling. Try to stay away from known allergens, such as pollen, pet dander, and smoke.
An over-the-counter oral antihistamine, such as Claritin (Loratadine), is usually strong enough to treat chemosis inflammation due to allergies. Let your doctor know if these medications are not effective in eliminating your symptoms. You may need a prescription for stronger medications.
Bacterial conjunctivitis is treated with antibiotic ointments or eye drops. If you show signs of a bacterial infection, take the full course of medication to prevent the infection from recurring. Viral conjunctivitis is another potential cause of chemosis; however, antibiotics do not effectively treat viral infections. Cold compresses and lubricating eye drops are often the best form of treatment for this type of infection.
Your outlook depends on the cause and severity of chemosis – if the underlying cause is treated, you can expect to make a full recovery.
In some cases, such as after eye surgery, chemosis may not be preventable. However, if chemosis is caused by allergies, taking steps to avoid allergens and manage symptoms can reduce risk for recurring bouts of chemosis. Practice good hand washing techniques to prevent the spread of bacteria, and avoid excessively touching or rubbing your eyes, especially with unclean hands.