An autoimmune disease occurs when the natural defense system of a body is not able to differentiate its own cells from foreign cells. As a result, the immune system mistakenly attacks normal cells. Nearly every part of the body – including the eyes – can take the brunt of autoimmune diseases.
In this article, a reputable eye clinic takes a closer look at some of the autoimmune diseases that can heavily affect the eyes, the common symptoms of these conditions and their risk factors.
Autoimmune Diseases That Are Linked to Vision Health
There are more than 80 types of autoimmune diseases that affect a wide range of body parts, from nerves and joints to eyes. Some autoimmune diseases that typically affect the eyes are:
This rare autoimmune disease characterized by ocular lesions, skin lesions and genital ulcers is a leading case of blindness in some parts of the world. It can affect the anterior and posterior portions of the eye.
This type of inflammatory bowel disease causes swelling of the tissues in the digestive tract. The main eye-related problem that can occur with Crohn’s disease is episcleritis, a common and benign cause of red eye.
A potential effect of diabetes is swelling of the eye lens. If blood sugar levels change from low to normal too quickly, the shape of the eye lens can be affected, leading to blurred vision. High blood sugar can also damage the blood vessels in the retina, the light-sensitive part of the eye.
Inflammation caused by lupus can affect many systems of the body, including the skin, brain, heart and lungs. The effects of lupus in and around the eyes include inflammation of the white outer layer of the eyeball, changes in the skin around the eyelids and damage to nerves controlling eye movement.
This is a lifelong condition that can affect the brain and spinal cord. Optic neuritis or inflammation of the optic nerve is a common symptom of this disease. It usually occurs in one eye and can cause blurred vision, loss of color vision and pain with eye movement.
A common chronic skin disease, psoriasis causes rashes with itchy, scaly patches all over the body, most typically on the scalp, knees and elbows. Some types of psoriasis are linked to a heightened risk of developing inflammatory eye conditions, such as conjunctivitis or inflammation of the eyelid.
Formerly known as Reiter’s syndrome, reactive arthritis is a condition that causes redness and swelling in various joints of the body. Many people with this condition also develop conjunctivitis.
This is an autoimmune and inflammatory disease that causes painful swelling in affected parts of the body. Its most common eye-related symptom is dryness of the sclera, which, if left untreated, can cause damage to the cornea, the clear surface that helps the eye focus.
A disorder of the immune system, Sjogren’s syndrome is identified by its two most common symptoms: dry eyes and a dry mouth. Because of the decrease in tear production, the eyes may feel extremely dry, itchy or burning.
This is a group of autoimmune diseases that result in high or low thyroid function. It increases the risk of developing glaucoma, a condition that causes high pressure inside the eye. With Graves’ disease, for instance, tissues build up around the eye and increase pressure. With low-thyroid disorders, on the other hand, pressure builds up because the eye is not able to effectively circulate its fluids.
This is an autoimmune disease that directly affects the middle layer of tissue in the eye wall called uvea. Its common symptoms include eye redness, pain and blurred vision. It can affect one or both eyes and can cause vision loss if left untreated by an eye specialist.
Risk Factors of Autoimmune Diseases
While the exact cause of autoimmune diseases is unknown, some people are more likely to develop an autoimmune disease than others. Risk factors that increase the chances of developing autoimmune diseases include:
Genetics: Certain autoimmune diseases like lupus and multiple sclerosis do tend to run in families, meaning that certain genes make some people more likely to develop them. Viruses, chemicals and other things in the environment can trigger an autoimmune disease if the body already possesses the genes for it.
Weight: Obesity increases the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis. This could be due to heavier weight putting significant strain on the joints or fat tissues producing substances that encourage inflammation.
Smoking: Research has also linked smoking to the development of several immune and autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, hyperthyroidism and multiple sclerosis. Smoking has wide-reaching effects on the immune system, including increasing inflammation levels and allergic conditions.
Medications: Some blood pressure medications or antibiotics can trigger drug-induced lupus, a generally milder version of the idiopathic disorder. Specific medications used to lower cholesterol can also trigger statin-induced myopathy, a rare autoimmune disease causing muscle weakness.
Medicines That Can Help Treat Eye Symptoms of Autoimmune Diseases
Fortunately, there are over-the-counter medicines that can help alleviate the eye-related symptoms of autoimmune diseases. These include artificial tears, lubricating gels and ointments, all of which can help with dry eyes. These medicines bring moisture back to the surface of the eye. Other inflammatory conditions are sometimes treated with oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs that are available over the counter. Patients who do not respond to oral medications should be referred to an ophthalmologist for possible treatment with immunosuppressive medications.
The Importance of Getting Regular Eye Examinations
Aside from eating a balanced diet and leading a healthy lifestyle, one of the most critical steps to preserve eyesight is to regularly attend appointments with an ophthalmologist. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, all adults should undergo eye screening at age 40 to maintain healthy vision, especially if they have not seen an eye specialist previously. Generally, however, adults aged 18 to 60 should get a comprehensive eye exam at least every two years.
If you happen to be affected by an autoimmune disease:
You should not wait until you are 40 years old to get a vision health screening. If you have not been to an ophthalmologist in the past year, it will be for your own benefit to see one now.
Make sure you talk to your doctor about how often you need a vision screening. If you are experiencing symptoms related to vision health issues, then you will definitely need to get screened more frequently. Some patients get screened as often as every six months, but this is for severe cases.
It is also important to get regular eye examinations if you are taking medications for autoimmune disease treatment, such as hydroxychloroquine, which can cause ocular toxicity to various parts of the eye. Other medications for autoimmune diseases that can have negative effects on vision health include corticosteroids, which can increase the risk of cataracts and glaucoma when used long-term.
Most autoimmune diseases can be managed with medication, although serious eye damage and, in some cases, blindness can happen if they are not treated. An eye doctor and an autoimmune specialist should work closely together to effectively treat eye symptoms that occur with autoimmune diseases.