External Eye Overview - Lashes, Eyelids and Lacrimal System

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

See also: Ectropion written for patients

This article gives an overview of problems concerning the lashes, the lids and the lacrimal system. See separate articles for more detail on:


This is a group of acquired conditions characterised by eyelashes making intermittent or constant contact with the ocular surface. It may arise in a number of circumstances:

  • A normal lash is misdirected (for example, due to conjunctival scarring: a major problem following trachoma infection) and rubs against the cornea.
  • Metaplastic eyelashes grow as a result of chronic inflammation or scarring - if this growth is behind the lash line, contact with the ocular surface may occur.
  • Congenital metaplastic eyelashes (distichiasis) may rarely occur where a partial or complete second row of lashes emerges behind the meibomian gland orifices. In a minority of these patients, there is an association with chronic lymphoedema, spinal arachnoid cysts and congenital heart defects (lymphoedema-trichiasis syndrome).[1]
  • As a result of entropion (see 'Lids', below).

With the exception of distichiasis, treatment is aimed at limiting any scar formation (for example, through good control of meibomian gland inflammation or blepharitis) and where necessary, removing the offending lash(es). Epilation works for about 4-6 weeks but more permanent solutions include electrolysis of the problematic lashes, cryotherapy where there are many lashes involved and where there is a localised growth of lashes that are otherwise treatment-resistant, a wedge resection of that part of the lid may be performed. Other than epilation, these treatments are carried out in a lid clinic or on an oculoplastics theatre list and they are associated with a ~70% success rate. Distichiasis requires more involved oculoplastic surgery.

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This is premature, localised whitening of the lashes and eyebrows. Ocular causes include chronic anterior blepharitis and sympathetic ophthalmitis. Systemic causes include the Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada syndrome and Waardenburg's syndrome. In rare cases, it has been seen as an early manifestation of conjunctival melanoma and tuberous sclerosis.


This is where there is a decrease in number or loss of eyelashes altogether. Causes may be:


These cause itching, blepharitis and folliculitis. Treatment may be by manual removal or chemical delousing. All clothes and linen also need to be laundered at >50°C.

  • Pediculosis - heavy infestations of Pediculus humanus corporis or capitis ('head louse') may spread to involve the lashes. If there are only a few lice, manual removal may be appropriate. More extensive infestation requires chemical treatment. Options include malathion or permethrin. The whole body needs to be treated on two separate occasions.
  • Phthiriasis palpebrarum[4] - Phthirus pubis ('crab louse') infestation occurs in pubic hair but may also affect children living in poor hygienic conditions. However, it is more commonly seen in adults, in whom it is usually a sexually acquired infection. It causes irritation and itching and is managed by trimming of the lashes, destruction of the lice and ova (eg yellow mercuric oxide 1%) and delousing of the patient (all the body) and other family members.

Allergic disorders[1]

These may arise in several forms:

  • Acute allergic oedema - this is usually caused by insect bites but is also seen where there is angio-oedema, urticaria and occasionally in response to drugs. There is painless pitting periorbital oedema in a well patient. Systemic antihistamines may help.
  • Contact dermatitis - this can occur in response to topical medication (due to the active component or the preservative), particularly chloramphenicol, neomycin and dorzolamide. Treatment is withdrawal of the offending agent ± a short course of mild steroid cream.
  • Atopic dermatitis (eczema) - there is thickening, crusting and vertical fissuring of the lids. Treatment is with emollients ± mild topical steroid cream.


A wide variety of infections can occur around the external eye:

  • Preseptal or orbital cellulitis - follow link for more details.
  • Varicella zoster - this causes a widespread vesicular rash, primarily affecting the head neck and trunk. The eyelids (including the lining conjunctiva) can be affected by this itchy rash. Cool compresses and, occasionally, artificial tears can help. Reactivation of the virus gives rise to shingles (see next bullet point).
  • Herpes zoster ophthalmicus[5] - shingles occurring in the first division of the trigeminal nerve gives rise to the characteristic unilateral maculopapular rash, often associated with marked pain and systemic malaise (may last up to 1 week prior to the development of the rash) and typically occurs in the older patient population. The eyelid, conjunctiva, episclera, sclera, cornea and anterior chamber may all be involved. (Hutchinson's sign: cutaneous involvement of the tip of the nose suggests an increased likelihood of ocular complications). Treatment is with systemic antivirals (eg famciclovir 750 mg od for 7-10 days).[3] Management of the lid involves cool compresses and topical lubrication ± topical antibiotics for secondary infections. The patient should be referred to the ophthalmology department the same day to rule out globe involvement - see separate Shingles article for more details and picture.
  • Herpes simplex[4] - primary infection is usually not clinically apparent unless occurring in the neonate (see separate article Ophthalmia Neonatorum) or when associated with atopic dermatitis or immunodeficiency. Secondary infection frequently manifests itself as a dendritic corneal ulcer which needs to be further assessed in the Eye Unit to rule out deep structure involvement. Simple lid involvement in the absence of any deeper manifestation may be treated symptomatically with cool compresses ± antibiotic ointment to prevent secondary vesicle infection. Secondary disease is also managed with oral aciclovir (200 mg-400 mg 5 times a day for 7-14 days).
  • Impetigo[1] - this superficial skin infection, caused by Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes, most commonly occurs in children and the lids will often be involved where there is infection of the face. Treatment involves both topical antibiotics and systemic flucloxacillin or erythromycin.
  • Erysipelas - S. pyogenes causes this more unusual, acute expanding cellulitis. Lid involvement may be severe. It is treated with phenoxymethylpenicillin or erythromycin.
  • Molluscum contagiosum[3] - this infection tends to affect children and young adults. It is caused by a dsDNA virus of the pox group, which is transmitted by close contact. It is characterised by pearly umbilicated nodules which may be profuse in HIV-infected individuals.
  • Necrotising fasciitis - periocular infection is rare and may be secondary to trauma or surgery. Periorbital redness and oedema with subsequent bulla formation and black gangrenous discolouration of the skin are characteristic and prompt treatment with intravenous antibiotics as well as surgical debridement are essential.

Benign lumps[1]

  • Chalazion.
  • Internal hordeolum (infected chalazion).
  • External hordeolum (stye)[6] - this is an acute staphylococcal abscess of a lash follicle. It tends to affect children and presents as a tender lid margin swelling pointing anteriorly (there may be multiple small lesions).
    • Treat with lash removal (if painful: this facilitates drainage), warm compresses and 'milking' (gently massage the lesion to try and express contents through the follicle).
    • A short course of systemic antibiotics may be useful if it is very large.
    • Patients shouldn't attempt to puncture the stye themselves. However, you may wish to incise the stye using a fine sterile needle - this procedure is not appropriate for children.
    • Symptoms resolve rapidly following stye rupture/drainage.
    • Consider referral if there are symptoms/signs of associated cellulitis (preseptal or orbital) or if the patient is systemically unwell. Also, consider referring if the stye is persistent or particularly large and painful and has not responded to conservative treatment.
    • If the stye has an atypical appearance or reoccurs in the same location, think of the possibility of cancer.
  • Cysts - there are various cysts that can arise around the eye. Common ones include sebaceous cysts (as with any other part of the body), cysts of Moll (benign, non-tender translucent lesions arising from the apocrine sweat glands) and cysts of Zeiss (similar to cysts of Moll but containing oily secretions). Cysts can be removed in a simple minor operative procedure, under local anaesthetic.

Benign tumours

  • There are a number of lesions that can occur around the periorbital skin in a similar manner to any other part of the body, including seborrhoeic keratosis, actinic keratosis (note that 20% of cases may progress to squamous cell carcinoma),[7] cutaneous horn formation, keratoxanthoma formation and melanocytic naevi.
  • Papilloma[3] - these very common lesions are derived from the squamous cells and may be broad-based (sessile) or narrow-based (pedunculated). Some are related to the human papillomavirus.
  • Pyogenic granuloma - this is a pink, vascular, often pedunculated lesion growing out from the inside of the lid, which usually arises following surgery or trauma. If large or symptomatic, it can be excised.
  • Capillary haemangioma (strawberry naevus) - this is rare (although one of the most common tumours of infancy) and, when it occurs around the eye, tends to form on the upper lid. The tumour usually grows rapidly in the first year of life before receding. If the vision is threatened (a large tumour may close the eye or dent the cornea, so giving rise to astigmatism ± amblyopia), treatment may be warranted. This may involve laser treatment, local steroid injection (there are a number of complications) or systemic steroids if there is associated visceral involvement. Only a few cases need surgical intervention.

Malignant tumours[1]

  • Basal cell carcinoma - accounts for >90% of all neoplastic eye lesions: look for the shiny, firm, pearly, umbilicated nodule. It most frequently occurs on the lower lid (followed by the medial canthus, upper lid and lateral canthus). There is a sclerosing, non-nodular type, which is less common and is difficult to diagnose, but look for an indurated plaque ± lid distortion and lash abnormalities. The latter may imitate chronic inflammation/scarring (eg chronic blepharitis).[3] Younger patients predisposed to basal cell carcinoma include those with xeroderma pigmentosum and Gorlin-Goltz syndrome. Treatment is with wide local excision.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma - this accounts for ~2-5% of lid malignancies and may arise from pre-existing actinic keratosis.The tumour tends to occur on the lower lid at the margin, commonly in fair-skinned elderly people with a history of sun exposure. It may be plaque-like (rough, scaly erythematous patch), nodular or ulcerating with a sharply defined base and everting borders. Both types may ulcerate, show lymphatic and perineural spread and metastasise.[3] It can be aggressive: refer early if you suspect this.
  • Sebaceous gland carcinoma - this is a rare (1-2% of lid malignancies), slow-growing but aggressive tumour usually affecting the elderly and commonly arising from the meibomian glands. In contrast to the previous two tumours, it tends to occur on the upper lid. It is aggressive and has a poor prognosis with an overall mortality rate of ~10% (going up to 67% at 5 years if there are metastases).[3] A history of recurrent presumed chalazion or chronic unilateral blepharoconjunctivitis should raise suspicions. Depending on tumour extent, wide local excision, regional lymph node clearance and exentration may all be considered.
  • Other tumours - other more rare tumours occurring around the lids include melanoma (<1% of eyelid neoplasms: irregular pigmentation, inflammation, bleeding), Kaposi's sarcoma (arising from HHV8, relatively common in people with AIDS - look for a vascular purple-red nodule) and Merckel's cell carcinoma (very rare tumour of the elderly, usually presenting as a non-tender purple nodule and often on the upper lid).


  • Description - this is an eversion of the lid margin. Involutional ectropion (occurring with old age) is the most common form. Paralytic ectropion occurs following a seventh cranial nerve palsy and cicatricial ectropion can occur following burns, trauma and chronic dermatitis. Less commonly, mechanical ectropion can occur whereby a mass (eg a tumour) displaces the lid from the globe. Congenital ectropion is rare and tends to be associated with other malformations.[9] Problems arise due to conjunctival and (particularly) corneal exposure. Severe cases may develop conjunctival keratinisation.[3]
  • Presentation - it may be asymptomatic or the patient may complain of irritation, tearing (eye rubbing will make the ectropion worse) and irritation ± a red eye. Rarely, there will be complaints relating to exposure keratopathy (dry cornea).
  • Assessment - examine the lids, their apposition to the globe (does the tear meniscus lie between the lid margin and the globe or somewhere down in the fornix?) and the position of the puncta with regards to the globe - the punctum should not normally be visible: if it is, there is punctal ectropion. Assess the cornea with fluorescein staining to rule out exposure keratopathy: look for little dots of fluorescein uptake (punctate epithelial keratopathy) - see separate Dry Eyes article for more detail.
  • Management - lubricants and artificial tears will do initially but ultimately, surgery is the only corrective measure (this can be done under local or general anaesthetic). If the ectropion is severe (assess by lying the patient in a supine position and asking them to close the eyes), taping the lids overnight can provide a temporary solution whilst waiting for surgery.


  • Description - this is an eversion of the lid margin. As with ectropion, it may be involutional or cicatricial (which can cause upper lid entropion, eg trachoma)[3] but it may also occur as a result of acute muscle spasm in response to ocular irritation (eg infectious, inflammatory or traumatic) and, rarely, it may be congenital. Again, the main issue is its effect on the cornea.
  • Presentation - ocular irritation, foreign body sensation, blepharospasm, tearing and redness.
  • Assessment - assess the eyelashes to distinguish entropion from trichiasis (see 'Trichiasis', above) and the cornea for evidence of damage. Severe or recalcitrant cases may need a conjunctival biopsy if ocular mucous membrane pemphigoid is thought to be the underlying cause.[7]
  • Management - temporising measures may include taping or, in the case of muscular spasm, botulinum injection[11] (the effects last for about 3 months) but, ultimately, these patients will need corrective surgery.


  • Description - this refers to the inability to close the eyelids completely over the globe. It can occur in a number of circumstances, including proptosis (exophthalmos), mechanical inability to close the lids (for example, due to trauma), a paralysis of orbicularis oculi (such as may occur following a cerebrovascular event or surgery) and leprosy. Occasionally, it occurs during sleep only (nocturnal lagophthalmos).[12] Other than considerations of the underlying cause, the concern lies in the development of exposure keratopathy.
  • Presentation - the patient may complain of problems associated with exposure keratopathy: discomfort, redness, (compensatory) tearing and, if severe, photophobia and decreased visual acuity.
  • Assessment - patients should be asked to close their eyes: look for the Bell's phenomenon (the globe should roll up when the lid closes) - if it is poor or absent, there is an increased risk of corneal damage. Examine the cornea and assess the patient for any of the underlying causes outlined above.
  • Management - underlying causes should be managed (think of orbital diseases in proptosis: thyroid eye disease, orbital tumours, lacrimal gland tumours, orbital inflammatory pseudotumour) in addition to intensive lubrication ± taping at night. Irreversible causes may warrant referral for more permanent surgical intervention.

Acquired disorders of the lid

  • Dermatochalasis - this is a condition which largely affects elderly patients and is characterised by (usually bilateral) herniation of fat through the orbital septum giving rise to a saggy appearance of the skin under the eyebrow, overlying the lids. If it is severe, a simple surgical procedure can go some way towards correcting it.
  • Blepharochalasis - this rare condition involves repeated episodes of painless non-pitting oedema of both upper lids which spontaneously resolves. Episodes tend to start during puberty and decrease in frequency with age. There may be an end result of sagging eyelid skin.
  • Floppy eyelid syndrome - this self-describing problem tends to occur in obese men and is often associated with sleep apnoea and snoring. The loose lids tend to part during sleep so resulting in an exposed cornea and chronic papillary conjunctivitis. Treatment is with lubricants and, in severe cases, surgery. Patients manifesting other symptoms and signs relating to sleep apnoea may need to be referred to a respiratory physician.[7]
  • Lid retraction - this describes the situation where the upper lid margin rests above the superior corneal limbus (where the cornea meets the sclera) and can arise from a number of causes:

Congenital disorders of the lid

  • Epicanthic folds - these are bilateral vertical folds of skin at the medial canthi which may give rise to the impression that the baby has an esotropia (inward turning squint). This can be ruled out by looking at the position of the light reflection of a pen torch with respect to the position of the pupil. Where there is uncertainty, orthoptist assessment can confirm or refute this.
  • Epiblepharon - this is the phenomenon where there is an extra fold of skin on the anterior lid margin which causes the lashes to be directed vertically rather than out. Manual correction restores the normal position. This is common and the majority of cases resolve with age.
  • Telecanthus - this is the wide separation of the medial canthi despite normally positioned orbits (contrast this with hypertelorism: the actual orbits are widely separated). This may be an isolated phenomenon or part of a syndrome.
  • Coloboma - this is the uncommon condition of a partial or full thickness defect of the lid and is associated with systemic conditions such as Treacher Collins' syndrome. Treatment is surgical.
  • Cryptophthalmos[3] - this is a failure of lid development. There is residual surface ectoderm covering the (often poorly developed) eye. This may be autosomal dominantly inherited.

Blocked lacrimal ducts

  • Description - obstruction may occur at any level of the drainage system from the puncta to further down the nasolacrimal duct. Idiopathic stenosis is by far the most common cause but other aetiology includes trauma, Wegener's granulomatosis, infiltrating nasopharyngeal tumours and stones (dacryoliths). Congenital nasolacrimal obstruction usually refers to delayed canalisation of the duct.
  • Presentation - infants present with a sticky non-infected and non-red eye. They are well with it. Both sides may be affected. Later on, presentation is with epiphora (excess tearing) and there may sometimes be an associated ectropion due to constant rubbing away of the tears.
  • Assessment - babies are left alone until at least two years of age. Adults and older children can undergo canal probing: this is carried out in the lid clinic (adults) or under anaesthetic (children). If this is inconclusive, a dacryocystography (DCG) may be carried out. This involves taking plain film images after injection of radiopaque contrast into the system.
  • Management - if the symptoms are really problematic, surgical correction can be performed (this needs to be done under a general anaesthetic). Traditionally, an external approach has been used, opening the obstruction from the side of the nose (external dacryocystorhinostomy (DCR)); however, more recently, an endoscopic procedure is favoured (endonasal DCR), often carried out jointly by the ear, nose and throat and oculoplastic surgeons.


See separate Dacryocystitis and Canaliculitis article for more detail on this condition.

Further reading & references

  1. Kanski J; Clinical Ophthalmology, A Systematic Approach, 5th Ed, Butterworth Heinemann (2003)
  2. Sachdeva S, Prasher P; Madarosis: a dermatological marker. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol. 2008 Jan-Feb;74(1):74-6.
  3. Denniston AKO, Murray PI; Oxford Handbook of Ophthalmology (OUP), 2009
  4. The Wills Eye Manual (4th ed) 2004
  5. Diaz MM et al, Herpes Zoster Ophthalmicus, Medscape, March 2013
  6. Styes (hordeola); NICE CKS, May 2010
  7. Jackson TL; Moorfields Manual of Ophthalmology, Mosby (2008)
  8. Ing E, Ectropion, Medscape, Nov 2009
  9. Bedran EG, Pereira MV, Bernardes TF; Ectropion. Semin Ophthalmol. 2010 May;25(3):59-65.
  10. DeBacker C et al, Entropion, Medscape, Aug 2011
  11. Deka A, Saikia SP; Botulinum toxin for lower lid entropion correction. Orbit. 2011 Jan;30(1):40-2.
  12. Latkany RL, Lock B, Speaker M; Nocturnal lagophthalmos: an overview and classification. Ocul Surf. 2006 Jan;4(1):44-53.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Olivia Scott
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Document ID:
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