Meibomitis is an inflammation of the meibomian glands, located in the eyelids. Inflammation of these glands causes the eyelids to become swollen, red and painful, particularly at the margins. Meibomitis usually is a mild inflammation that does not cause lasting damage to the eyelids or eyes.
The meibomian glands of the eyelids secrete oils that absorb into the tear film of the eyes. The tear film is a very thin layer of liquid made up of water and meibomian oils. By covering the eyes in a thin moisture layer, the tear film lubricates the eyes, protecting them from dryness and irritation. The tear film is largely water, and the addition of the oils helps to prevent the tear film from evaporating too quickly. Therefore, the oils secreted by the meibomian glands are essential to the health of the eyes.
In most cases, meibomitis develops because of bacterial infection of the meibomian glands, caused by thickening of the oils secreted by the glands. This occurs because thickening of the oils hinders the absorption of the oils by the tear film. Instead, meibomian oils build up on the margins of the eyelids. Bacteria that normally are present in low numbers on the eyelids can quickly overgrow with the addition of the oils as a nutrient source, causing inflammation of the meibomian glands and eyelids.
Meibomitis symptoms generally are uncomfortable and irritating rather than being severely painful. Swollen, tender eyelids and blurred vision are common symptoms of this eye inflammation. In most cases, no special treatment is required for the inflammation, apart from ensuring that the eyelids and surrounding area are kept as clean and as dry as possible. If the inflammation lingers or becomes worse, treatment with oral antibiotics or a topical antibiotic ointment might be necessary.
Inflammation of the meibomian glands can be complicated by an infection of one or more of the glands themselves, which can occur if bacteria enter one of them. The resulting infection, called a stye, causes further inflammation and tenderness of the eyelid and the development of a red, tender bump at the infection site. In most cases, this infection will resolve without any treatment, but antibiotics might be necessary if the infection lingers.
Even though meibomitis usually is a minor condition, it should be taken seriously because of the possibility of serious complications. One of these is the development of a corneal ulcer, which can cause vision-impairing eye damage. Ulcers and other serious complications are very rare, but because they can cause permanent eye damage, any case of eye or eyelid inflammation should be treated carefully.