Keratitis is the medical term for inflammation of the cornea.
Keratitis, the eye condition in which the cornea becomes inflamed, has many potential causes. Various types of infections, dry eyes, injury, and a large variety of underlying medical diseases may all lead to keratitis. Some cases of keratitis result from unknown factors.
Types of Keratitis
Keratitis can be classified by its location, severity, and cause.
If keratitis only involves the surface (epithelial) layer of the cornea, it is called superficial keratitis. If it affects the deeper layers of the cornea (the corneal stroma), it is called stromal keratitis or interstitial keratitis . It may involve the center of the cornea or the peripheral part of the cornea (that portion closest to the sclera) or both. Keratitis may affect one eye or both eyes.
Keratitis may be mild, moderate, or severe and may be associated with inflammation of other parts of the eye. Keratoconjunctivitis is inflammation of the cornea and the conjunctiva. Kerato-uveitis is inflammation of the cornea and the uveal tract, which consists of the iris, ciliary body, and choroid.
Keratitis may be acute or chronic. It may occur only once or twice in an eye or be recurrent. It may be limited in its effects on the eye or be progressive in its damage.
The various causes of keratitis may result in different clinical presentations, so defining the location, severity, and frequency of the condition can often assist in pinpointing the exact cause. Other helpful facts in establishing the cause of keratitis can include demographic information such as the age, sex, and geographic location of the patient. A medical history is often useful as well in finding the cause of keratitis.
Infection is the most frequent cause of keratitis. Bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasitic organisms may all infect the cornea, causing infectious or microbial keratitis.
- Bacteria most frequently responsible for keratitis include Staphylococci, Hemophilus, Streptococci, and Pseudomonas. If the front surface of the cornea has been damaged by a small scratch and the surface is not intact, almost any bacteria, including atypical mycobacteria, can invade the cornea and result in keratitis. Ulcerations of the cornea may occur, a condition known as ulcerative keratitis. Before the advent of antibiotics, syphilis was a frequent cause of keratitis.
- Viruses that infect the cornea include respiratory viruses, including the adenoviruses and others responsible for the common cold. The herpes simplex virus is another common cause of keratitis. There are about 20,000 new cases of ocular herpes in the United States annually, along with more than 28,000 reactivations of the infection. There are about 500,000 people in the U.S. with a history of herpes simplex eye disease. The herpes zoster virus (the virus responsible for chickenpox and shingles) may also cause keratitis if shingles involve the forehead.
- Fungi such as Candida, Aspergillus, and Nocardia are unusual causes of microbial keratitis, more frequently occurring in people who are immunocompromised because of underlying illnesses or medications. Fusarium keratitis, a type of fungal infection, occurs primarily in contact-lens wearers. Bacterial co-infection can complicate fungal keratitis.
- Contact-lens wearers are also susceptible to acanthamoeba keratitis caused by an amebic parasite. "River blindness," or onchocercal keratitis, is another parasitic infection of the cornea, rarely seen in developed countries but very common in the Third World.
Physical or chemical trauma is a frequent cause of keratitis. The injury may become secondarily infected or remain noninfectious. Retained corneal foreign bodies are frequent sources of keratitis. Ultraviolet light from sunlight (snow blindness), a tanning light or a welder's arc, contact-lens overwear, and chemical agents, either in liquid form splashed into the eye or in gases in the form of fumes can all result in noninfectious keratitis. Chemical injury or contact lens-related keratitis often causes superficial punctate keratitis, in which the examiner notices myriads of injured surface cells on the affected cornea.
Disturbances in the tear film may lead to changes in the corneal surface through drying of the corneal epithelium. This type of keratitis is usually superficial and most commonly is related to dry eyes and is known as keratitis sicca. If the eyes are extremely dry, the surface cells may die and form attached filaments on the corneal surface, a condition known as filamentary keratitis. Inability to close the eyelids properly can also lead to cornea drying, which is a condition termed exposure keratitis.
Allergies to airborne pollens or bacterial toxins in the tears may also cause a noninfectious type of keratitis. Autoimmune diseases create a similar appearance, often affecting the periphery of the cornea, termed marginal keratitis or limbic keratitis.
Symptoms and signs
The symptoms of keratitis usually include pain, tearing, and blurring of vision. The pain may be mild to severe, depending on the cause and extent of the inflammation. Sensitivity to light may also be present. To the observer, the eye may appear red, watery, and if the cornea has extensive keratitis, the normally clear cornea may look gray or have white to gray areas.
Treatment depends on the cause of the keratitis. Infectious keratitis generally requires antibacterial, antifungal, or antiviral therapy to treat the infection. This treatment can involve prescription eyedrops, pills, or even intravenous therapy. Any corneal or conjunctival foreign body should be removed. Wetting drops may be used if disturbance of the tears is suspected to be the cause of the keratitis. Steroid drops may often be prescribed to reduce inflammation and limit scarring. This must be done carefully and judiciously, since some infections can be worsened with their use.
Contact-lens wearers are typically advised to discontinue contact-lens wear, whether or not the lenses are related to the cause of the keratitis.