Corneal Edema (Swelling) | Causes, Symptoms & Treatment | MedStar Health

Corneal swelling (also called corneal edema) is an inflammation of the outermost layer of the eye. The cornea is a clear layer of tissue that looks like a smooth, dome-shaped piece of glass. By blocking irritating debris and controlling the way light enters the eye, your cornea helps to protect your eyes and focus your vision.

The cornea has a layer of cells along its inner surface called the endothelium. The endothelium pumps liquid out of the cornea, keeping your cornea healthy and vision clear. When the endothelium is damaged, fluid can build up in the cornea and the cornea may swell. This swelling can cause vision impairment.

The ophthalmology team at MedStar Health provides cutting-edge care for corneal swelling. Our clinicians will work to assess your corneal condition, determine underlying cause, and create a customized treatment plan. Your eyesight deserves expert care.

What causes corneal swelling?

One common cause of swelling is Fuch’s endothelial dystrophy, a hereditary condition that causes a gradual loss of endothelial cells and often becomes noticeable when patients are in their 50’s. Corneal swelling can also be caused by the inflammatory effects of medical conditions like herpes simplex, eye surgery, medications, and irritation related to use of contact lenses.

What are the symptoms of corneal swelling?

Many patients seek treatment for this condition after noticing that their vision is becoming blurred. Other common symptoms include:

  • Glare or halos around lights
  • Sensitivity to light and/or touch
  • Scratching sensation in the eye
  • In severe or advanced cases, blisters may form on the surface of the eye

How is corneal swelling diagnosed?

Diagnostic tests for corneal swelling are completed in an outpatient setting. Your ophthalmologist will talk with you about your medical history and symptoms. Then, he or she will conduct an eye exam. During the exam, your ophthalmologist will look for clouding of your cornea. He or she may use magnifying tools, such as a slit lamp or ophthalmoscope, to get a better view of your eye. Your doctor may also perform an ultrasound or measure the thickness of your cornea using a process called optical pachymetry, as well as perform specialized measurements of the corneal endothelium..

How is corneal swelling treated?

In formulating your treatment plan, your ophthalmologist will consider the severity and underlying cause of your corneal swelling. Treatment options may include:

  • Hypertonic solutions (for example, Muro128) used to reduce swelling
  • Medications such as antibiotics, corticosteroids, and beta-adrenergic blockers
  • Bandage contact lenses (thin, breathable lenses that are high in water content) can be used to soothe blisters on the eye.
  • In some cases, treatment of the underlying medical condition causing the edema will also resolve the corneal swelling.
  • For some patients, surgery may be an option. Your surgeon will determine whether a partial or total corneal transplant is appropriate depending on the severity of the swelling. 
    • Partial corneal transplant: The damaged layer of the cornea is removed and replaced with the specific layer of healthy donor tissue.
    • Total corneal transplant: The center of the cornea is entirely removed and replaced with the whole cornea from a donor.

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