What Is Ocular Rosacea?

Medically Reviewed by Whitney Seltman, OD on September 01, 2023
3 min read

You may have heard of rosacea, a skin disease that causes redness and acne-like bumps on your face. It can affect your eyes, too. When it does, it's called ocular rosacea.

About 13 million Americans have rosacea, mostly adults ages 30 to 60. More than half of them have ocular rosacea -- in fact, it can show up in the eyes first. And some people only have ocular rosacea.

Ocular rosacea can cause red, itchy eyes and swollen eyelids. Your eyes also might look bloodshot and burn or sting. You might feel like you have a bit of sand in them all the time. A blast of cold air can make them water. And you might see little pimples in the rim of your eye or eyelid called styes.

Ocular rosacea can make you easily bothered by light or make your vision blurry.

If you notice any of these symptoms, see a dermatologist or eye doctor right away.

Scientists don’t know exactly why it happens, but researchers have found that 85% of people with ocular rosacea have blocked oil glands around the edges of their eyelids. These glands produce the oil layer of the year film to help prevent dryness. If they are blocked, the area around them can swell and get irritated. This can lead to redness and itching in your eyes and crust in your eyelashes.

Some scientists believe mites -- tiny spider-like creatures that live in hair follicles on your face and lashes -- can block the glands. Others think there may be a link between rosacea and the bacteria that cause digestive infections. Another idea is that rosacea is caused by a problem with your blood vessels. Genes and your environment may play a part, too.

Fair-skinned people are more likely to have rosacea, and some women get it during menopause. It can’t spread from person to person.

Your doctor will take a close look at your face and eyes. They often use a kind of microscope that shows the tiny blood vessels along the eyelid and any glands that might be plugged.

Treatment may include applying warm moist compresses to your eyelids. "Probing" is a newer treatment during which a doctor puts thin rods into the plugged glands to open them up.

Your doctor also might recommend antibiotics to help with your symptoms or prescribe eye drops or ointments with steroids for the irritation and redness. Artificial tears can help keep your eyes moist.

If it’s not treated, in rare circumstances, severe ocular rosacea can cause serious problems. There can be scarring in your eyelid or damage to your cornea -- the clear covering over your eye. Both of these can affect your vision.

A number of things can make the condition worse, and avoiding them can help. These include:

  • Extreme heat, cold, sunlight, or wind
  • Intense activity
  • Alcoholic or hot drinks
  • Spicy food
  • Stress

It can also help if you:

  • Wear glasses or sunglasses to shield your eyes from sun and wind when you go outside.
  • Keep the area around your eyes clean. Your doctor might tell you to put warm compresses on your eyelids several times a day or to gently wash your lashes and lids with a Q-tip and baby shampoo.
  • Stay on top of your meds. Make sure you follow your doctor's orders exactly to keep your symptoms from getting worse. If they do get worse, tell your doctor right away.