How Chronic Inflammation Could Be Bad for Your Eyes

Your own immune system could threaten your vision. Here’s what to know — and what to do to protect yourself.

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Inflammation is a big health buzzword lately. You’ve probably read articles or heard friends talk about how bad it is for your body.

In fact, inflammation is a natural immune system response that happens because of an injury or infection, notes Harvard Health Publishing. It is needed to help you heal from an injury or fight off an infection. When the threat disappears, the inflammation usually subsides.

Problems arise when the inflammation persists. Then it becomes what’s known as chronic inflammation, which can be dangerous to your heart, mental health, digestive system — and your eyes.

“Inflammation can affect both the surface and internal structures of the eyes,” says David Teed, O.D., an optometrist who practices at America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in McKinney, Texas.

“Patients will say they have red, watery, sore eyes, sensitivity to light, blurry vision, or dryness.” The symptoms can affect one or both eyes.

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Inflammation, Explained

When you get injured or are exposed to something like, say, a flu virus, it activates your immune system. Your immune system is your body’s natural defense system. When your body activates its immune system, it sends white blood cells to the area to protect it and fight off the virus (or bacteria, chemical, or other offender in the case of an injury).

That process is inflammation: You may see swelling, or the area may get red or painful, which is actually a sign that your body is starting to heal itself.

Anyone can have inflammation, but chronic inflammation is a hallmark of many autoimmune disorders. These disorders are conditions in which the body’s own immune system turns against itself, attacking healthy cells in organs and tissues. Even though the danger that originally triggered the immune response is over, the body continues sending the inflammatory cells, and that can cause lasting damage.

5 Illnesses That Could Cause Eye-Damaging Inflammation

There are more than 100 autoimmune diseases, according to the Autoimmune Association, some of which target the eyes. Among the most common are:

Graves’ disease. The immune system attacks the thyroid gland, causing it to produce more hormones than necessary, leading to hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid). For more than one-third of patients, the disease also attacks eye muscles and tissues and can lead to pain, sensitivity to light, red or swollen eyes, blurry or double vision, and bulging eyes.

For more on ways Graves’ disease can affect the eyes, read “Are Your Dry, Red Eyes the Sign of a Thyroid Problem?” here

Sjögren’s syndrome. This condition affects various tear- and saliva-producing glands. In the eyes, it can lead to extreme dryness, which is terribly uncomfortable and can affect your vision.

Giant cell arteritis. With this condition, the linings of arteries — especially those in the head — become inflamed, according to the Mayo Clinic. That slows the blood flow through those vessels, which can have a devastating effect on your sight, creating double vision or even a sudden and permanent loss of vision.

Multiple sclerosis. Here, the immune system attacks and damages the protective coating around the nerves. That can trigger inflammation of the optic nerve, says the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. You may lose color vision, feel eye pain, or have blurry or dim vision.

Lupus. This condition affects the skin, joints, kidneys, and heart. You may also notice swelling around your eyes, according to the National Library of Medicine.

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How to Protect Your Eyes from Inflammation

“If inflammation shows up, you really have to stomp on it,” says Dr. Teed. “Inflammatory cells inside your eyes are sticky. What they can also do is clog up the drain where the fluid inside your eye goes out. That can spike pressure and cause chronic, long-term vision problems.”

If you know you have an autoimmune disease, you’re probably already under the care of a specialist, who will directly treat the condition. That will help you manage flare-ups that affect your eyes, but your eye doctor should also be part of your medical team.

Dr. Teed cautions that you should see your eye doctor right away if you experience any of the following eye symptoms that are associated with inflammation:

  • Eye pain or pressure of any type
  • A gritty, sandy feeling in your eyes
  • Vision changes

For eye inflammation, artificial tears are the first line of defense against dryness. If the condition continues, you may be prescribed a steroid, says Dr. Teed. Prescription dry eye medications, which decrease inflammation and increase tear production, may also be prescribed. You’ll need to return to the office for a follow-up visit to ensure that the treatment is working and to plan next steps that will maintain the health of your eyes, he adds.

Letting inflammation flare-ups take their course unchecked leaves you vulnerable to unnecessary suffering, says Dr. Teed, but it can also lead to secondary conditions that threaten your sight. Dr. Teed says the primary worry is glaucoma, a disease in which pressure builds up and damages the optic nerve. Glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness and low vision in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Why Annual Eye Exams Are Important

Maybe you don’t have an autoimmune disease — or you don’t know that you have one. That’s just one more reason to have regular eye exams, which can detect inflammation. In fact, optometrists are often the first ones to pick up on signs of diabetes within the eyes, which appears as bleeding or fluid leakage in the retina, says Dr. Teed.

“The No. 1 enemy of the eyes is diabetes,” he says. Though type 1 diabetes is considered an autoimmune condition, research also shows that chronic inflammation plays a role in the development of type 2 diabetes. Both types can lead to the development of eye complications including diabetic retinopathy, a condition that can also lead to blindness.

If an autoimmune condition or a chronic disease is suspected, your optometrist will refer you back to your primary care physician or to a specialist for further evaluation. Treating the underlying disease is key to maintaining your vision.

Also, don’t hesitate to talk to your optometrist about how you can incorporate healthy lifestyle habits into your eye care plan. Dr. Teed recommends limiting red meat, refined sugar, and dairy.

Along with a healthy diet, it’s also important to develop go-to stress management strategies and to do cardio exercise regularly, he says. If you currently smoke, now is the time to come up with a plan to quit.

“There are still several eye conditions, including age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma, that we haven’t isolated precisely, but they do occur in some patients. So you have to put yourself in the best position, and that’s by taking care of yourself and maintaining good overall health,” he says.