What is a Corneal Ulcer?

D. Jeffress
D. Jeffress
Eye pain and pus discharge may be signs of a corneal ulcer.
Eye pain and pus discharge may be signs of a corneal ulcer.

A corneal ulcer is an open lesion that appears on the eye. Ulcers can be caused by viral, bacterial, or fungal infections and often result in eye pain and pus discharge. Without prompt medical treatment, a corneal ulcer can permanently damage a person's vision. It is important to visit the emergency room or an ophthalmologist as soon as possible to receive a proper diagnosis and learn which medications can help relieve symptoms and promote healing. Doctors can also provide helpful information on how to prevent future eye infections.

The cornea allows light to enter the eye.
The cornea allows light to enter the eye.

A person can experience a corneal ulcer if the outer layer of the eye, called the cornea, is injured. A scrape or puncture on the cornea leaves the eye susceptible to bacterial infections. People who wear contact lenses are at a higher risk of developing ulcers because a lens can irritate the eye and trap bacteria in the cornea. An ulcer can also be the result of a viral infection, such as the herpes simplex virus, or a fungus. Less commonly, a vitamin A deficiency can weaken the cornea and render the immune system less effective at fighting off bacteria.

A person can experience a corneal ulcer if the outter layer of the eye, or cornea, is injured.
A person can experience a corneal ulcer if the outter layer of the eye, or cornea, is injured.

The most common symptoms of a corneal ulcer include redness, excessive tear production, and constant pain. An an infection worsens, the lower eyelid can become swollen and a milky pus can build up and discharge from the eye. Vision often becomes blurry, and a person might develop headaches and feelings of nausea. An ulcer that is left untreated can actually scar the cornea and cause permanent vision loss.

A person who believes that he or she might have a corneal ulcer should seek medical attention immediately. Upon initial inspection at an emergency room or ophthalmologist's office, a doctor uses a specialized microscope to carefully examine the ulcer. If it is unclear what caused a lesion, the doctor collects a tissue sample for laboratory analysis. Lab tests can reveal the presence of bacteria, viruses, or fungi and help the physician determine the proper course of treatment.

Corneal ulcers are usually easy to treat with eye drops and oral medications that contain antiviral, antibacterial, or antifungal agents. By applying drops daily and avoiding overexposure to bright light, an ulcer usually heals in less than three weeks. A patient who wears contacts might be instructed to wear glasses instead during the healing phase. In addition, a physician can explain the importance of removing contacts at bedtime and proper lens cleaning procedures to help reduce the risk of recurring eye ulcers.

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Discussion Comments

Wisedly33

@Scrbblchick -- Wow. So the lesson is, don't ignore a corneal ulcer (not that anyone would, you hope). Wow. That's incredible. So glad they were able to save her vision and she was able to go back to work. Must be a great facility. I've heard of UAB -- big teaching hospital, right? Don't let eye infections get away from you. Go ahead and see a doctor.

Scrbblchick

One of my co-workers got a corneal ulcer from an infection. She went to the ER (it was a Sunday) and the doctor called her eye doctor, who came and examined her, and promptly called the Eye Foundation Hospital at UAB to get her admitted that day! Her eye doctor said her eye was basically melting and if the infection got in the other eye, she would be blind. She put drops in the eyes, gave her a bottle of them and said to keep putting the drops in every 30 minutes on the 90-minute drive to UAB.

When they saw her at UAB, the doctor said he had only seen a couple of other cases like hers in his years of practice and he said it was touch and go.

For 48 hours, she had to wake up every hour, on the hour, for drops. Her mom was with her. She came back to work the next week, thankful to have her vision. It was a very near thing.

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    • Eye pain and pus discharge may be signs of a corneal ulcer.
      By: JPC-PROD
      Eye pain and pus discharge may be signs of a corneal ulcer.
    • The cornea allows light to enter the eye.
      By: blueringmedia
      The cornea allows light to enter the eye.
    • A person can experience a corneal ulcer if the outter layer of the eye, or cornea, is injured.
      By: Subbotina Anna
      A person can experience a corneal ulcer if the outter layer of the eye, or cornea, is injured.