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What is Chemosis?

By Cathy Crenshaw Doheny
Updated Feb 20, 2024
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Chemosis is a general term that can be used to describe an eye irritation, especially in reference to the conjunctiva, which is the mucus membrane covering the eyeball and inside of the eyelid. The condition is most often characterized by the appearance of fluid retention around the outer surface area of the eye. This can sometimes cause such extensive swelling that closing the eye becomes difficult.

One common cause of the condition is a viral infection of the conjunctiva. This infection, also known as pink eye, is one type of conjunctivitis. Pink eye can be very contagious, especially among children. Other symptoms of the infection, in addition to chemosis, may include watery eyes with a discharge, and discomfort or itchiness. Pink eye often affects one eye at first, but usually moves to both.

Another common cause of chemosis is angioedema, which is a swelling underneath the skin, sometimes in the form of welts. These painful and often itchy welts usually occur around the mouth and eyes, as well as on the hands, feet and throat. In addition to chemosis and welts, angioedema may cause breathing difficulties and abdominal cramping. The condition is most often brought on by an allergic reaction to a particular food, medication, an insect bite or pollen. Treatments for angioedema may include corticosteroids, antihistamines and epinephrine.

Trichinosis, a parasitic disease, is a more serious condition that can cause chemosis. It may occur when a person consumes raw, or undercooked, pork or wild game that is infected with the larvae of a certain type of roundworm, known as the trichina worm. Chemosis can also be related to hyperthyroidism, a condition caused by an overactive thyroid, and sarcoidosis, a disease that may cause inflammation in the organs and tissues, including the eyes, lymph nodes, lungs and skin.

Tuberculosis, a contagious bacterial infection that primarily affects the lungs, can also lead to chemosis of the eye. Reiter's syndrome, better known as reactive arthritis, may cause a similar eye irritation. This inflammatory condition can affect not only the eye, but the urethra and joints as well.

Home treatments to relieve the discomfort of chemosis may include cool compresses over the affected eye and over-the-counter oral or topical antihistamines. The condition should improve once the underlying cause is identified and treated. Patients are advised to see a physician, especially if they experience other, more serious symptoms, such as vision changes, breathing difficulties or fainting.

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Discussion Comments
By KoiwiGal — On Nov 07, 2011

@browncoat - I would suggest that the next time that happens you do go to the doctor. Even though it is probably self limiting (meaning it will go away by itself) your eyes are quite vulnerable when they are that swollen.

So, they could easily get an eye infection if they don't go down very quickly. And dealing with an eye infection on top of an allergy would not be fun and could lead to permanent damage of your eyes.

I'm always one to err on the side of caution, but especially when it comes to my eyesight. Almost any kind of chemosis seems like it should be checked out by a doctor.

By browncoat — On Nov 06, 2011

@croydon - I know exactly what you mean. I never had pink eye, but I get a kind of chemosis every time spring comes around, because I'm allergic to some kind of pollen that gets in the air. They never get too bad, as long as I don't rub at my eyes.

Unfortunately, I find if I rub at them, I must work the pollen in deeper or something, because then they tend to swell up and even taking antihistamines won't completely cure them. It sucks, because they can get quite itchy.

The very worst time it happened was after I vacuumed the house and then innocently rubbed my eyes.

They swelled so much I thought I was going to have to go to the emergency room, but, thank goodness they went down by themselves.

By croydon — On Nov 06, 2011

Pink eye is so annoying. I remember when my school suffered an outbreak when I was a kid. The worst thing about it was that of course everyone wanted to rub their eyes, because they were itchy, but the teachers jumped on you if you even put your hands near your face.

Of course, that's what you're supposed to do, because rubbing your eyes and then touching someone is what spreads the infection.

But I remember being intensely frustrated and kept wanting to sneak out of the class so that I could rub my eyes in peace!

Even writing about it is making my eyes feel itchy.

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