Several types of diseases can affect the cornea (the clear front layer of the eye). Your eye doctor can check for corneal diseases as part of a comprehensive dilated eye exam.

Shingles

If you’ve had chickenpox, you’re at risk for shingles (also called herpes zoster). Shingles happens when the chickenpox virus gets reactivated in your nerve cells, usually many years after you had the chickenpox. When shingles affects the cornea, it can cause inflammation (swelling) and scarring.

Your eye doctor can prescribe antiviral medicine to help shingles go away faster and prevent damage to your cornea. If you get shingles on your face or in your nose or eyes, it’s important to get a comprehensive eye exam to check for cornea problems.

Ocular herpes

When a herpes virus (the type of virus that causes cold sores and genital herpes) infects the eye, it can cause sores on the eyelid or the outer layer of the cornea. This is called ocular (eye) herpes.

If an ocular herpes infection spreads deeper into the cornea or the other layers of the eye, it can become a serious eye infection called keratitis. Keratitis can cause corneal scarring and vision loss.

If you have ocular herpes, your eye doctor can prescribe antiviral medicine to help control the virus and prevent damage to your cornea.

Iridocorneal endothelial syndrome (ICE)

ICE is most common in women ages 30 to 50. It happens when a type of corneal cells called endothelial cells move from the cornea into the iris (the colored part of the eye). When these cells move, they can block eye fluid from draining and raise eye pressure.

ICE has 3 main symptoms:

  • Changes in the shape of the iris or pupil
  • Swelling in the cornea
  • Glaucoma

Your eye doctor can prescribe medicine to treat the corneal swelling and glaucoma. If the damage to the cornea is severe, you may need a corneal transplant.

Pterygium

A pterygium is pink-colored growth on the cornea shaped like a wing or triangle. It’s most common in adults ages 20 to 40 who spend a lot of time outdoors in the sun.

A pterygium may cause redness or irritate your eye. Eye drops can help with these symptoms. If a pterygium is large enough to cause vision problems, you may need surgery to remove it.

To protect your eyes and lower your risk of a pterygium, wear sunglasses or a wide-brimmed hat when you’re in the sun.

Stevens-Johnson syndrome

Stevens-­Johnson syndrome (SJS), also called erythema multiforme major, is a rare skin disorder that also affects the eyes. SJS can cause serious eye problems that may lead to vision loss, including:

  • Severe pink eye (conjunctivitis)

  • Iritis (inflammation inside the eye)

  • Serious corneal damage

SJS can happen as an allergic reaction to a drug or medication, or as part of a viral infection. Anyone can get it, but it’s more common in men and in children and young adults under age 30.

If you have SJS, your eye doctor may prescribe medicines like antibiotics or a corticosteroid, as well as a type of eye drops called artificial tears. With treatment, SJS usually goes away over time, but people who have had SJS before are more likely to get it again.

Last updated: June 26, 2019