University of Edinburgh

Medical Information on Iritis

by Dr Andrew Blaikie for VI Scotland

This document is written with the minimum use of medical terms and jargon. It is impossible to avoid all medical terms but where we have used them we have attempted to explain them as clearly as we can. Although the information is intended to describe most aspects of the condition each child is different and there will always be exceptions to the rule. As far as we can determine these pages are true and accurate and have been written in good faith.

What this Information is not for?

This document is not a substitute for a consultation with a Health Professional and should not be used as a means of diagnosing a condition.

We hope the Information will help you to:

  • Have a better understanding of the condition
  • Know what tests and treatments are normally available
  • Know when to seek professional advice
  • Be able to discuss the condition in a more informed way
  • Make the most of consultations with carers, teachers and health professionals
  • Be reassured and more able to cope

Due to staffing limitations we are not able to offer telephone or email advice to parents of children.

Medical Information on Iritis

What we see is made in the brain from signals given to it by the eyes. What we see is in fact made in the brain. The brain makes sight from signals given to it by the eyes.

What is the normal structure of the eye?

The eye is made of three parts.

  • A light focussing bit at the front (cornea and lens).
  • A light sensitive film at the back of the eye (retina).
  • A large collection of communication wires to the brain (optic nerve).

A curved window called the cornea first focuses the light. The light then passes through a hole called the pupil. A circle of muscle called the iris surrounds the pupil. The iris is the coloured part of the eye. The light is then focused onto the back of the eye by a lens. Tiny light sensitive patches (photoreceptors) cover the back of the eye. These photoreceptors collect information about the visual world. The covering of photoreceptors at the back of the eye forms a thin film known as the retina. Each photoreceptor sends its signals down very fine wires to the brain. The wires joining each eye to the brain are called the optic nerves. The information then travels to many different special 'vision' parts of the brain. All the parts of the brain and eye need to be present and working for us to see normally.

What is Iritis?

Iritis is when the iris in the eye becomes inflammed. 'itis' means 'to be inflammed'. 'itis' is often added to end of the name of a part of the body to describe an inflammatory condition of that part.

There are two main types of Iritis

Often iritis only affects a child for a few weeks. The iritis gets better by itself or quickly improves with treatment. This is called 'Acute' Iritis. Acute Iritis only rarely causes serious visual impairment. If the child is affected for months to years it is called 'Chronic' Iritis. Chronic Iritis responds more poorly to treatment and is more likely to cause serious visual impairment.

Why might the iris become inflammed?

There are many different reasons why the iris can become inflammed. Sometimes no cause can be found. This is called Idiopathic. Very rarely certain infections and conditions of blood vessels can cause Iritis. The most common cause of Chronic Iritis in children is Juvenile Chronic Arthritis. Arthritis means inflammation of joints. This is also called Still's Disease.

What is Still's Disease?

Still's Disease is a very rare inflammatory condition that mainly affects children's joints. The joints that are most likely to be affected include the knees, ankles, fingers, toes, wrists, elbows, and hips.

What symptoms might a child with Iritis complain of?

Different children will complain of different symptoms. It will also depend on the type of Iritis the child is suffering from. At first the most common symptoms a child with Iritis will complain of include eye pain, which is usually worse in bright light. Eye pain that is worse in bright light is called 'photophobia'. Parents may notice that the eye looks a bit pink or red. Sometimes the child will also complain of blurred vision. The eye is not usually sticky or itchy but may water. Generally Acute Iritis is at first more painful than Chronic Arthritis. Surprisingly children with Chronic Arthritis may, at first, not complain of any symptoms. Later Chronic Iritis can cause serious visual impairment because other problems with the eye may develop.

Chronic Iritis can often cause other eye conditions

Chronic Iritis can cause other eye conditions to develop. Some of these can cause visual impairment. The most common conditions include:

  • Glaucoma
  • Cataract
  • Band Keratopathy
  • Cystoid Macular Oedema

What is Glaucoma?

Glaucoma is when the optic nerve is damaged by high pressure in the eye. This can cause visual impairment.

What is Cataract?

Cataract is when the normally clear lens of the eye becomes hazy. If the lens is not clear then not all the light can get into the eye and vision is often blurred.

What is Band Keratopathy?

Sometimes if an eye is inflammed for a long period of time the clear cornea at the front of the eye becomes hazy. A grey stripe or 'band' can be seen across the centre of the cornea. This may also cause blurred vision.

What is Cystoid Macular Oedema?

Sometimes the inflammation from the iris can spread and cause swelling of the retina at the back of the eye. The central part of the retina is called the macula. The macula is the bit of the retina used for sharp colour vision. If this becomes swollen with fluid (develops oedema) then it stops working properly. A child with cystoid macular oedema from iritis will have blurred central vision but with normal vision around the sides.

How is Iritis Diagnosed?

An Eye Doctor can diagnose iritis during an examination. Using a microscope and a bright light (a slitlamp) an eye doctor can examine the front of the eye. The cornea and iris will show typical signs that help diagnose iritis.

Sometimes the eye doctor will also do other tests to try to find out what the cause of the inflammation is. These are often blood tests and X-rays.

What can be done to help?

Anti-inflammatory steroid drops help treat most cases of Acute Iritis.

Chronic Iritis is more difficult to treat. If drops do not work then tablets of anti-inflammatory drugs may have to be taken. Usually a specialist paediatric doctor will also help the eye doctor look after a child with chronic iritis. There are many different types of anti-inflammatory drugs. They often have side effects. An important side effect includes reducing the child's ability to fight infections. This is called immunosuppression. Steroid drugs can have specific side effects on the eye. These include causing glaucoma and cataract.

How can parents, family, friends and teachers make a difference?

There are however lots of things that can be done to help children with Iritis make the most of their vision.

We use our vision to get around, learn new things and to meet other people and make friends. It is important to consider what your child's particular problems with vision might be now and in the future. If your child has been prescribed spectacles, contact lenses or a Low Visual Aid (LVA) it is important that they are encouraged to wear and use them. This will help your child see more clearly and ensure the vision parts of the brain grow and develop. Along with wearing a wide brimmed hat they may also reduce glare and photophobia.

Problems at school may be due to some of the reading books being hard to see. This often means it takes longer and more effort to do the work. If the size of print is increased and letters and words spaced more widely most children will find schoolwork easier. Good bright lighting and crisp black print on a clean white background will also make things easier. Sometimes placing reading books on a slope, which tilts the print towards the child, will improve reading speed as well.

When reading it can be helpful to read one line at a time through a 'letter box' placed over the page. Placing a piece of blue tack below the line they are reading, at the beginning of the next sentence, can help some children find their way back to the start of the next line more quickly.

It is also worth watching carefully to find out what the smallest toys are that a child can see and play with. Then try to only play with toys that are the same size or bigger. Placing one toy on a plain background will often help children see it more readily. Placing lots of toys of different size and colour close together on a patterned background can make them more difficult to see.

Recognising facial expressions can often be difficult. It is worth trying to find out at what distance facial expressions can be seen and responded to. Then always try to talk and smile from within this distance. This helps a child to learn what facial expressions mean and to copy them.

Infants and young children need to learn about the world around them. Home visiting teachers, physiotherapists and occupational and speech therapists may all add to the child's care and education. It is important to continue the programmes that they recommend. If the child is involved in family activities vision can improve and new skills can develop.

Even if a child has very poor vision many useful and practical things can be done to improve the ability of the child to get around, interact with other children and learn.

Who wrote these documents?

These pages are the consensus of opinion of many different people. They include parents of visually impaired children, visually impaired children themselves, Community Paediatricians, Ophthalmologists, Educationalists and Psychologists.

The main author and person responsible for their content is Dr Andrew Blaikie who was an Ophthalmology Research Fellow with Visual Impairment Scotland and is a member of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists.

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