Blepharitis is a common condition where the eyelids become inflamed. It can cause red, itchy, burning eyes and crusting or scaling of the eyelids. Blepharitis is often chronic and recurring. While there is no cure for blepharitis, antibiotics can be an effective treatment option to help manage symptoms and reduce inflammation.
What causes blepharitis?
Blepharitis has two main underlying causes:
- Anterior blepharitis – this is caused by bacteria, often Staphylococcus aureus, colonizing the base of the eyelashes and eyelid margins. This causes greasy debris known as collarettes to build up and irritate the eyes.
- Posterior blepharitis – this is caused by dysfunction of the meibomian glands, which produce the oily portion of tears. When these glands become clogged, the quality and quantity of tears is reduced.
In many cases, people have both anterior and posterior blepharitis concurrently. The exact cause is often unknown but risk factors include seborrheic dermatitis, rosacea, allergies, and chronic eye dryness.
How are antibiotics used to treat blepharitis?
Since a common underlying cause of anterior blepharitis is bacteria, antibiotics applied topically directly to the eyelids can help treat the condition. Antibiotics work by killing the bacteria colonizing the eyelids and reducing inflammation. This helps clear debris from the eyelashes and slows the progression of the condition.
Antibiotics may also have anti-inflammatory effects beyond their antibacterial properties. This added anti-inflammatory benefit can provide additional relief for the inflamed eyelid margins.
What are the best antibiotic options for blepharitis?
The antibiotic options commonly used to treat blepharitis include:
The most commonly prescribed antibiotics for blepharitis are:
Erythromycin is a macrolide antibiotic that can be prescribed as an ointment or solution for application directly to the eyelid margins. It has both antibacterial effects against common blepharitis-causing bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus and anti-inflammatory properties.
Studies have shown erythromycin is effective at reducing debris and collarettes on the eyelashes, eyelid redness, and eyelid swelling. It also improves overall ocular discomfort. It is generally well-tolerated with few side effects apart from occasional minor eye irritation.
Azithromycin is another macrolide antibiotic. It can be used for blepharitis in an ophthalmic solution. It has both antibacterial actions against Staphylococcus aureus and Staphylococcus epidermidis as well as anti-inflammatory properties.
Studies have demonstrated 1% azithromycin ophthalmic solution applied to the eyelids twice a day for 2 days, then every 2 weeks can significantly improve symptoms and signs of blepharitis. Side effects are usually mild.
This combination antibiotic contains bacitracin and polymyxin B. It is commonly prescribed as an ointment. Bacitracin inhibits bacterial cell wall synthesis while polymyxin B disrupts bacterial membranes. Together they have a broad spectrum of activity against common bacteria causing blepharitis.
This combination antibiotic is effective at improving inflammation of the eyelids, decreasing debris on eyelashes, and reducing bacterial colonization when applied daily to eyelid margins. Mild eye stinging can sometimes occur.
Oral tetracycline antibiotics like tetracycline, doxycycline, and minocycline can also be used in pill form to treat blepharitis. Taken orally, the antibiotics reach the meibomian glands and eyelids through the bloodstream. Tetracyclines have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and lipid-regulating actions.
Lower dose oral tetracycline given daily for several weeks can improve eyelid redness, swelling, eyelash debris, and tear film stability. They can be helpful for reducing symptoms in moderate or severe cases of posterior blepharitis. Side effects like gastrointestinal upset, headaches, and photosensitivity can sometimes occur with oral tetracycline.
How should antibiotics be applied for blepharitis?
For antibiotics given as ointments or solutions directly applied to the eyelids, follow these steps:
- Wash hands thoroughly
- Apply a small amount of ointment to a clean cotton swab or fingertip
- Apply ointment along the base of the eyelashes, where they emerge from the eyelid
- Gently massage the ointment into the eyelid margins
- Use daily for the duration prescribed, usually 1-2 weeks
- Discard after use, do not share eye medications
It is important to apply the antibiotic ointment directly to the affected eyelid margins. Applying it too close to the eye itself can cause irritation. Follow your eye doctor’s instructions carefully.
Are there any disadvantages to antibiotics for blepharitis?
Potential disadvantages of using antibiotics for blepharitis include:
- Antibiotic resistance – bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics over time with repeated use
- Recurrence of infection – antibiotics do not permanently eliminate bacteria from the eyelids
- Side effects like irritation or allergy
- Risk of overuse with prolonged or unnecessary use
To reduce the risks of antibiotic resistance and recurrence, antibiotics are usually prescribed for a short course of 1-2 weeks. They may then be used intermittently as needed to control flare ups. Proper use as directed is important.
Are there non-antibiotic treatment options?
In addition to short term antibiotics, other treatment options for managing blepharitis include:
- Eyelid hygiene – cleaning the eyelid margins daily with warm compresses and lid scrubs
- Eye ointments – lubricating ointments can help manage eye dryness and irritation
- Omega-3 supplements – oral omega-3s help improve meibum secretion and tear quality
- Tea tree oil – has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties when applied to eyelids
- Prescription anti-inflammatory eye drops
- Meibomian gland probing – a procedure to unblock clogged meibomian glands
A combination approach utilizing antibiotics alongside these other treatments is often most effective for controlling blepharitis.
In summary, antibiotics can be an important part of managing blepharitis caused by bacterial overgrowth on the eyelids. The most commonly used and effective antibiotics for blepharitis are erythromycin, azithromycin, and bacitracin-polymyxin B combination ointments.
When applied topically to the eyelid margins, these antibiotics help reduce inflammation, debris, and eyelid colonization by bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus. Oral tetracyclines may also be used for more severe cases.
Antibiotics are typically prescribed for short 1-2 week courses. They can then be used intermittently when flareups occur alongside eyelid hygiene and anti-inflammatory treatments. With judicious use, antibiotics can help control the symptoms of chronic blepharitis.
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