Uveitis is a condition that develops when the uvea, the middle layer of the eyes, becomes inflamed. The disease can lead to pain in the eye, and it can also cause changes to an affected individual's vision. Symptoms patients experience include sensitivity to light, redness in the eyes, dull aches and pain in the eye, seeing small shapes move across their field of vision, cloudy or blurred vision, and loss of peripheral vision. These symptoms can present gradually or develop quite suddenly. They can also be experienced in either one or both of the eyes. Though most cases will improve with treatment, uveitis can sometimes lead to further complications, such as glaucoma and cataracts. When symptoms present, it's best to seek out medical assistance immediately.
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Uveitis is sometimes caused as a result of an eye injury, which can occur when the eye experiences trauma, such as a puncture or hard impact or blow. Scratches and abrasions from the fingers or other foreign objects will introduce bacteria to the eye, which, after being injured, cannot adequately protect itself. Foreign bodies, such as small bits of wood, metal, or toxic chemicals, can also lead to an eye injury and the development of uveitis. Uveitis can also develop after the eye is injured during a surgical procedure, or even as a result of wearing dirty or old contact lenses. Eye injuries can occur across many settings, but they need to be taken seriously, no matter how minor they may seem.
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There is also quite a bit of evidence linking autoimmune disorders with the development of uveitis. The immune system acts as the body's main defense system, keeping it healthy and fighting off illnesses. Sometimes, and for unknown reasons, the immune system can go into overdrive and be overactive in the eyes. When the body's immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues in the eye, believing it to be a foreign substance, the area is weakened. The autoimmune conditions most commonly found to cause uveitis include reactive arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, bowel inflammation, psoriasis, Behcet's disease, and multiple sclerosis.
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Infections, which allow bacteria and other harmful substances to take hold of the area and negatively impact functioning, are one of the main causes of uveitis. Several are known to lead to uveitis, especially if left untreated. Toxoplasmosis, caused by a parasite, is one such complication. Herpes, varicella-zoster (the virus that causes chickenpox and shingles), and even the sexually transmitted diseases HIV and syphilis have also been associated with uveitis. Sometimes, these viruses and bacterial build-up do not immediately cause symptoms linked to uveitis, so it's important to start treatment before the condition progresses. Any infection, regardless of where in the body it occurs, warrants treatment to prevent the development of complications.
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Some types of eye cancer have also been shown to cause uveitis, though these occurrences are certainly rarer than the conditions mentioned above. Lymphoma, a blood cancer, is one such example. It is rare, though possible. Lymphoma originates in the cells of the immune system, which are meant to fight illness and protect the body's systems. In cases of lymphoma, these cells change and act out. It is a very treatable disease, but non-Hodgkin lymphoma, in particular, has been shown to commonly spread to the eyes. When this occurs, it is referred to as ocular lymphoma. Uveitis is one of the more common co-occurrences with ocular lymphoma, but a biopsy must be done to verify cancer's presence.
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Two inflammatory conditions, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, are quite often associated with uveitis. Crohn's disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease that affects the gastrointestinal tract, from the mouth all the way to the anus. Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain, weight loss, and fever. Ulcerative colitis, on the other hand, results from an inflamed colon and rectum. Ulcers develop on the lining of the colon, producing pus and causing bleeding. While it may sound strange that two distinctly different areas of the body could be so connected, the tissues in both the eye and bowels are very similar. The immune system also attacks these tissues in the same way. In fact, symptoms may present in the eyes long before the gastrointestinal complications begin to become apparent.
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While smoking has been a known risk factor for eye issues such as age-related macular degeneration and cataracts for several decades, scientists have only recently started to understand its association with uveitis. In a 2010 study conducted in California, scientists analyzed the medical records of uveitis patients seen at an eye clinic between 2002 and 2009. The researchers looked specifically at whether the patients were smokers or non-smokers. After analyzing the material, the study authors determined the subjects who were smokers had 2.2 times the risk of developing uveitis when compared to patients at the clinic who had never smoked. In particular, the authors noted a very strong link between smoking and the incidence of swelling in the center of the retina among patients with a specific type of uveitis. Although additional research is needed to determine the reasons for this association, eye doctors believe the link exists because cigarette smoke and tobacco products contain compounds that promote inflammation throughout the body, including in the eyes.
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Toxin exposure can increase an individual's risk of contracting uveitis, and specialists believe heavy metals, pesticides, and mold could all contribute to the development of uveitis if they enter the eye. Some medications, including bisphosphonates, cidofovir, rifabutin, moxifloxacin, and sulfonamides are also known to be potentially toxic to the eyes, and use of these medicines has resulted in many cases of uveitis. To reduce the risk of this condition, individuals who work with pesticides and heavy metals should ask their employer about proper safety precautions when handling these materials, and they should remain vigilant for any symptoms of uveitis. Patients who believe they may have mold in their home environment should have an inspection performed, and individuals prescribed medications should always ask about the possible risk of uveitis and related eye conditions before deciding to take a particular drug. Any signs of uveitis should be urgently investigated by an eye doctor.