Uveitis is inflammation of the part of the eye called the uveal tract: the iris, ciliary body and choroid. It is classified according to the part of the uveal tract that it affects and symptoms also vary according to this. Uveitis can be sudden-onset (acute), long-lasting (chronic) or recurrent (relapsing). Treatment, often with steroid eye drops, can usually reduce inflammation and ease symptoms. If treatment is not started promptly and/or complications occur, it can be serious and may lead to permanent loss of vision.
What is uveitis?
Uveitis is inflammation of the uveal tract. The uveal tract is the name given to the part of your eye that is made up of:
- The iris: the part of your eye that gives it colour.
- The ciliary body: a small ring-like muscle that sits behind your iris.
- The choroid: the layer of tissue between your retina and your sclera, containing blood vessels and a pigment that absorbs excess light.
Parts of your eye next to the uveal tract can also be affected. These include:
- The retina: the light-sensitive layer lining the interior of your eye.
- The optic nerve: the nerve responsible for vision.
- The vitreous humour: the jelly-like material that fills the chamber behind your lens.
- The sclera: the white outer layer of your eyeball.
What are the different types of uveitis?
Uveitis is classified according to the part of the uveal tract that the inflammation affects:
- Anterior uveitis is the term for inflammation which affects the eye's front (anterior) part of the uveal tract. This can include the iris (iritis) or the iris and the ciliary body (iridocyclitis). It is the most common type of uveitis.
- Intermediate uveitis is the term for inflammation which affects the middle part of the uveal tract or eye, mainly the vitreous humour. It can also affect the underlying retina.
- Posterior uveitis is the term for inflammation which affects the back (posterior) part of the eye. It can affect the choroid, the head of the optic nerve, and the retina (or any combination of these structures). It includes chorioretinitis, retinitis and neuroretinitis.
- Panuveitis is the term for inflammation affecting the whole of the uveal tract.
Uveitis can also be:
- Acute: the uveitis is of sudden onset and tends not to last very long (less than three months but usually around six weeks).
- Chronic: this means it is persistent. The uveitis lasts for more than three months and also comes back (relapses) within three months of stopping treatment.
- Recurrent: the disease can flare up (relapse) and, at other times, it settles down.
The reason why some people develop chronic uveitis is not known. However, it is not thought to be due to inadequate treatment.
What causes uveitis?
There are many different causes of uveitis and uveitis is associated with a number of other diseases. However, in up to half of cases, no specific cause for uveitis is found. This is known as idiopathic uveitis.
The known causes and associations of uveitis include the following:
Autoimmune and inflammatory diseases
Our immune system normally makes small proteins (antibodies) to attack bacteria, viruses, and other 'germs'. In people with autoimmune diseases, their immune system makes antibodies against the tissues of their body, causing damage and inflammation. It is not clear why this happens. Some people have a tendency to develop autoimmune diseases. In such people, something might trigger the immune system to attack the body's own tissues. The 'trigger' is not known.
Autoimmune diseases that are associated with uveitis include rheumatoid arthritis and Behçet's disease. (See the separate leaflets called Rheumatoid Arthritis and Behçet's disease for more information on these conditions.) It is also thought that 'idiopathic' uveitis may actually have an autoimmune basis.
People with some other inflammatory diseases are also more prone to uveitis. Such diseases include ankylosing spondylitis, reactive arthritis (including Reiter's syndrome), sarcoidosis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease (including Crohn's disease) and ulcerative colitis. (See separate leaflets called Ankylosing Spondylitis, Reactive Arthritis/Reiter's Syndrome, Sarcoidosis, Psoriasis, Crohn's Disease and Ulcerative Colitis for more information on these conditions.)
Various types of infections caused by germs (bacterial, fungal and viral) can cause inflammation of your eye and uveitis. Infections include herpes simplex, herpes zoster, toxoplasmosis, cytomegalovirus, syphilis, gonorrhoea, tuberculosis and Lyme disease. Infections are a rare cause of uveitis.
Injury to the eye
Uveitis can occur after injury to your eye.
'Iatrogenic' refers either to an unforeseen or to an inevitable side-effect from a medical treatment. In this case, iatrogenic uveitis is usually uveitis that has resulted from eye surgery.
Some cancers are associated with inflammation and uveitis. These include leukaemia, lymphoma and malignant melanoma. (See separate leaflets called Leukaemia - A General Overview, Hodgkin's Lymphoma, Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, and Melanoma for more information on these conditions.)
How common is uveitis and who gets it?
It is thought that between 17 and 52 per 100,000 people develop uveitis each year in the UK. It mostly affects people between the ages of 20 and 59 and is uncommon in children. However, uveitis can affect anyone of any age. If you have one of the underlying conditions or problems mentioned above, you are at greater risk of developing uveitis. In countries of the developed world such as the UK, uveitis is the cause of about 1 in 10 people with visual impairment.
What are the symptoms of uveitis?
The symptoms can vary depending on which type of uveitis you have.
This usually affects one eye. The common symptoms are eye pain (usually felt as a dull ache in and around the eye), redness of your eye, and photophobia (which means you do not like bright light). You may develop blurred vision or even some visual loss (usually temporary). You may develop headaches and notice that the pupil of the affected eye may change shape slightly. The pupil may not react to light (normally becomes smaller) or it may lose its smooth round shape. Your eye may become watery. The symptoms tend to develop over a few hours or days.
This usually causes painless blurred vision. It is unusual to experience photophobia and redness of your eye. You may notice floaters and these are a common symptom. Floaters are dark shapes that you see, especially when looking at a brightly illuminated background such as a blue sky. Both eyes are usually affected in intermediate uveitis.
This commonly causes painless blurred vision. In some people, it can also cause severe visual loss. If you have posterior uveitis you may notice floaters, as described above. You may also develop scotomata. Scotomata are small areas of less sensitive, or absent, vision in your visual field. These areas are surrounded by normal sight. It is usual for only one of your eyes to be affected in posterior uveitis and symptoms tend to take longer to develop.
How is uveitis diagnosed?
Uveitis is usually suspected on the basis of the symptoms that you have. If your doctor suspects that you have uveitis, you will usually be referred to an eye specialist for further examination and confirmation. The doctor may start by testing your vision. This allows them to assess any differences in vision between your eyes. It also means that they can tell if the uveitis is causing your vision to worsen.
The doctor examining your eye will use a special microscope called a slit-lamp to examine your eye. If you have uveitis, the doctor will see some specific changes in your eye that will allow them to make the diagnosis.
You may need further investigations, especially if the doctor thinks there may be an underlying problem. You may also need further investigations if you have had previous episodes of uveitis, or if this episode is severe or affects both eyes. These tests may include optical coherence tomography (OCT), which takes special pictures of your eye, blood tests and possibly also a chest X-ray.
What is the treatment for uveitis?
Treatment for uveitis aims to help relieve pain and discomfort in the eye(s), treat any underlying cause (if possible), and to reduce the inflammation. This may prevent permanent loss of vision or other complications. Treatment usually includes the following:
Steroid eye drops
Steroid eye drops are used to reduce the inflammation in uveitis. Steroid drops are usually the main treatment for uveitis and may be the only treatment for mild attacks. Examples of steroid drops include prednisolone and dexamethasone eye drops.
Although steroid eye drops usually work well, in some cases side-effects occur, which are sometimes serious. Therefore, steroid eye drops are usually only prescribed by an eye specialist (an ophthalmologist) who can monitor the situation.
Possible side-effects that sometimes occur include ulcers on the cornea of the eye, which can be very painful and affect your vision. If steroid eye drops are used for long periods of time, they can lead to clouding of your lenses (cataracts) or raised pressure in your eye (glaucoma).
Treatment to relieve pain and discomfort
- Cycloplegic eye drops: these are special eye drops that can be used to relieve pain by causing the pupil in your eye to widen (dilate). The drops cause your pupil to dilate by relaxing the muscle in the ciliary body. As a result, pain reduces and the inflamed iris is able to rest and recover. Examples include atropine and cyclopentolate eye drops. However, they can have some side-effects. They can make your pupil appear large, can cause temporary blurred vision and also difficulty with focusing. When the effect of the drops wears off, these side-effects will disappear. If these drops are not used, the inflammation in the iris may cause it to become 'stuck' to the lens causing permanent scarring.
- Dark glasses: if your symptoms include sensitivity to bright light (photophobia), wearing dark glasses may be helpful.
- Painkillers: painkillers, such as paracetamol, may also help.
Steroids by mouth or injection
In severe uveitis, steroids are sometimes given by injection into or around your eye. They can also be given by mouth. Again, these can have side-effects if used in the long term. The main side-effects from steroids taken by mouth occur when they are used for more than a few weeks. These include thinning of the bones (osteoporosis), thinning of the skin, weight gain, muscle wasting and an increased risk of serious infection.
If steroid treatment is needed in the longer term to treat uveitis, a second drug known as an immunosuppressive drug may be used. This can help to reduce the amount of steroids needed and/or help to control the uveitis if steroids are not working.
Treatment of underlying conditions and causes
Any underlying cause of your uveitis also needs to be treated (if possible). This means treating any underlying infection, inflammatory disease or autoimmune disease.
Occasionally, surgery is needed to treat uveitis - usually persistent (chronic) uveitis. Surgery is used in addition to the other treatments mentioned above. Uveitis cannot be treated only by surgery.
For example, if someone has persistent floaters that are affecting their ability to see, the vitreous humour in the eye can be removed. Floaters tend to develop because of inflammation causing damage to the vitreous humour.
Surgery may also be used to treat the complication of cataracts that can occur (see below).
There are a number of new treatments for uveitis that are currently being investigated. These include medicines called TNF-alpha blockers, such as etanercept and infliximab.
What are the complications of uveitis?
If uveitis is not treated quickly, it can have serious effects and can lead to permanent loss of vision. It may also lead to complications that can affect your eyesight. If complications are not detected early, they can sometimes have a more harmful (detrimental) effect on your eyesight than the underlying uveitis.
The complications of uveitis may be caused by the effects of the inflammation inside the eye. However, some of them may also be caused by the steroid treatment used to control the inflammation. Despite this, as a general rule, using enough steroids to control the uveitis will generally give a better outcome than using too few steroids and not controlling the inflammation. Complications that can sometimes occur with uveitis include:
- Formation of synechiae: synechiae are the name given to the 'bands' of tissue that can form between the iris and the lens due to inflammation if uveitis is not treated promptly. Eye drops which cause the pupils to widen (dilate) can sometimes help to prevent synechiae.
- Glaucoma: the pressure in your eye can increase suddenly and may cause glaucoma. The inflammation in your eye may cause the pressure in your eye to increase. Using steroids can also cause a sudden increase in pressure in your eye, especially if you already have glaucoma. If glaucoma is not treated, it can lead to loss of vision. Glaucoma can also be caused by repeated attacks of uveitis or a side-effect of long-term steroid treatment. (See separate leaflet called Chronic Open Angle Glaucoma for more information.)
- Macular oedema: this is the term for fluid building up in the back of your eye around your macula on your retina. It may cause permanent visual loss.
- Cataract formation: the inflammation can cause changes in the lens of your eye, and clouding of the lens (cataract formation). Cataracts may also be caused by long-term steroid treatment. If a cataract worsens and is not treated, it can lead to visual loss. (See separate leaflet called Cataracts for more information.)
- Retinal detachment: the inflammation can cause 'pulling' on your retina so that it 'comes away' or is detached. This can cause you to experience flashing lights, floaters and problems with your vision. If you suspect that you have a retinal detachment, contact your doctor immediately, as urgent surgery is often needed. (See separate leaflet called Retinal Detachment for more information.)
What is the outlook (prognosis) for uveitis?
In general, the sooner treatment for front of eye (anterior) uveitis is started, the better the outlook and, for most people, the quicker it goes away. However, anterior uveitis can come back (recur), especially if it is associated with an underlying illness such as an autoimmune disease or the inflammatory diseases mentioned above.
Anterior uveitis can also become persistent (chronic) in some people, despite early and adequate treatment.
With intermediate or back of eye (posterior) uveitis, it is more likely that the condition will last for a longer time or will be chronic. Some people who have recurrent uveitis learn to recognise their symptoms. They are given steroid eye drops to keep in reserve and start when their usual symptoms reappear. People who have chronic or recurrent uveitis are usually under the long-term care of an eye specialist and have regular check-ups in the outpatient clinic.
Uveitis caused by infection generally clears up when the infection is treated, and does not recur.
Further reading & references
- Uveitis; NICE CKS, November 2009
- Guly CM, Forrester JV; Investigation and management of uveitis. BMJ. 2010 Oct 13;341:c4976. doi: 10.1136/bmj.c4976.
- Grunwald L, Newcomb CW, Daniel E, et al; Risk of Relapse in Primary Acute Anterior Uveitis. Ophthalmology. 2011 Jun 14.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Michelle Wright
Dr Colin Tidy
Dr Olivia Scott