• Severe Eye Infections Increasing as Opioid Crisis Continues

    Reviewed By Natasha L Herz MD
    Feb. 04, 2021

    Vision-threatening eye infections are on the rise in people with drug addictions, according to a new study in JAMA Ophthalmology. Hospitalizations for a rare eye infection called endogenous endophthalmitis rose 400% between 2003 and 2016 among people with a history of intravenous (IV) drug use.

    The infection can develop when bacteria or fungi enter the bloodstream through the use of dirty needles, then spread to the eyes.

    Endogenous endophthalmitis is extremely rare. But it can have devastating consequences.  

    How opioid addiction can lead to dangerous eye infections

    The study found a sharp rise in severe eye infections after 2010 — the year regulators clamped down on opioid prescribing. Researchers suspect people with prescription opioid addictions began turning to cheaper, more readily available street drugs.

    Injected drugs like heroin and fentanyl have become dangerously popular in recent years. Drug overdoses reached alarming levels during the COVID-19 pandemic. Endogenous endophthalmitis is a rare but persistent threat as the opioid crisis continues.

    Recognizing and treating endogenous endopthalmitis

    People with severe eye infections develop eye painredness and inflammation, as well as worsening vision. A swollen, pus-filled abscess forms in the eye as the infection progresses. Left untreated, the infection can spread to the retina and cause irreparable damage to vision.

    Doctors treat these infections by injecting the eye with antibiotics or antifungal drugs. Steroids may reduce swelling and inflammation. Surgeons may need to remove parts of the eye damaged by infection. People with severe infections may need to have their entire eye removed to prevent the infection from spreading to the brain.

    Even after treatment, some patients remain blinded by scarring that happens when the infection destroys the retina.

    When should you seek medical attention for an eye infection?

    Inflammation and redness in the eyes aren’t always signs of infection. But if you have these symptoms, it’s important to see an ophthalmologist as soon as possible. People who use IV drugs should be upfront with their doctors so that they can receive the best care possible.