Bulging Eyes (Exophthalmos)

Bulging eyes, which your doctor may call "exophthalmos," can be a sign of infection, thyroid problems, or other medical issues. It's important to get it checked by a doctor so you can start treatment for the condition that's causing it.

Graves' Eye Disease

Graves' eye disease is the leading cause of bulging eyes. It goes by several names. You might hear your doctor call it Graves' ophthalmopathy or thyroid eye disease.

Graves' eye disease affects about 30% of people who have the immune system disorder called Graves' disease. If you have Graves' disease, your body makes too much thyroid hormone.

Anyone can get Graves' disease, but it typically affects women before age 40.

With Graves' eye disease, your immune system -- the body's defense against germs -- attacks tissue around the eyes. This causes them to swell and push forward, giving them a "bulging" appearance.

You might have other symptoms like:

  • A dry, gritty feeling in your eyes
  • Pressure or pain in your eyes
  • Puffy eyelids
  • Red or inflamed eyes
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Double vision or vision loss

If you have any of these problems, see your doctor. She'll treat your specific eye symptoms as well as your thyroid hormone levels.

Though less common, Graves' eye disease can also happen to people with an underactive thyroid gland. In rare cases, people with normal thyroid levels can get it, too.

Injury

An eye injury can cause swelling or bleeding in your eye socket. Your eye may bulge when blood collects behind it.

Other signs of an eye injury include:

  • Consistent pain
  • One eye that doesn't move as well as the other
  • The feeling that something is in your eye
  • Vision changes, such as problems seeing out of the hurt eye

Your doctor will treat the injury and drain any fluid that has collected.

Infection

Many infections can attack the eye and inflame your eye socket.

A common infection of the eye is orbital cellulitis. It can lead to more serious problems if you don't get treatment. Along with bulging eyes, symptoms include:

  • Swelling of the eyelid
  • Pain
  • A hard time moving the eye
  • Fever
  • Redness in or around the eye

Call your doctor if you think an infection is the cause of your bulging eye. You could need antibiotics or possibly surgery.

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Glaucoma

In this eye disorder, increased pressure in the eyes damages the nerves that connect the eyes to the brain. The pressure can cause the eyes to bulge.

Other symptoms include extra tears and being sensitive to light.

It's important to get treatment for glaucoma to prevent vision loss. Your doctor will prescribe medication to lessen the pressure on your eyes. You might also need surgery.

Tumor Behind the Eye

A tumor can form behind the eye and force it forward. It can be cancerous or noncancerous (benign). Other signs of a tumor behind the eye include:

  • Numbness, tingling, or pain in the eye
  • Vision changes
  • Swollen or droopy eyelid
  • You're not able to move both eyes in sync with each other, leading to double vision

Doctors can remove some tumors with surgery. If the tumor is cancerous, you might need surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on May 04, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:      

Mayo Clinic: "Graves' disease."

National Health Service (UK): "Overview: Exophthalmos."

Michigan Health Labs: "Study: 'Breakthrough' drug reduces Graves' Eye Disease Symptoms."

Weill Cornell Brain and Spine Center: "Orbital Tumors."

American Academy of Ophthalmology: "Recognizing and Treating Eye Injuries."

Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai: "Orbital Cellulitis."

Boston Children's Hospital: "Orbital Cellulitis Symptoms and Causes."

U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Early-onset glaucoma."

Merck Manual Consumer Version: "Eyes, Bulging."

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