Corneal Edema: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Medically Reviewed by Whitney Seltman, OD on November 02, 2022
2 min read

Corneal edema, also called corneal swelling, is a buildup of fluid in your cornea, the clear lens that helps focus light onto the back of your eye.

One common cause of corneal edema is a problem that affects the inner layer of your cornea. In most normal eyes, membrane called endothelium pumps fluid out of the cornea. This keeps your vision clear and your eyes working as they should.

When the endothelium stops doing its job because of illness or injury, liquid builds up and your cornea swells. A number of conditions can cause this. 

One of the most common is Fuch’s endothelial dystrophy. This happens when your genes cause the slow loss of the cells that make up the endothelium. It’s more common after age 50 and women get it more often than men.

Other things that could help trigger Fuch’s include:

  • Some medications
  • Eye surgery
  • Contact lenses
  • Other medical conditions like herpes

Other possible causes of corneal edema include:

  • Injury to your eye from a blow or a puncture
  • Inflammation due to problems like rheumatoid arthritis or specific eye issues like iritis or keratitis
  • Eye surgery
  • Poisonous substances that inflame, irritate, or damage parts of your eye

The first thing you might notice is blurry vision. Often, it might be the worst first thing in the morning and then get better throughout the day.

You might also have: 

  • Eye pain or discomfort in light
  • Pain or tenderness when you touch your eye
  • A scratchy feeling in your eye
  • Hazy circles, or “halos,” around lights
  • In rare or serious cases, painful blisters in your eye

Your doctor will talk with you about your medical history and any symptoms you might have. Then they'll examine your eyes. If your doctor thinks you might have corneal edema, they'll likely:

  • Look for scars or cloudiness on your cornea
  • Use magnifiers like a slit lamp or an ophthalmoscope to see details of your eye

They might also measure the thickness of your cornea using a device called a pachymeter. Your doctor may use ultrasound to get a better look at your eye.

Which one you'll have depends on what causes your edema.

Some of the more common treatment plans include 

  • Washing, or “irrigation,” of the eye with water or saline to get rid of toxic substances
  • Antibiotics for bacterial infections
  • Bandage contact lenses for damage to the surface of the cornea
  • Corticosteroid medications to ease swelling after injury
  • Medications for illnesses like inflammation or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Antiviral meds for viral infections