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What is Orbital Cellulitis?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2014
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Orbital cellulitis is an infection of the eye and the orbit, the underlying structure in the eye socket which supports the eye. A closely related conditions, periorbital cellulitis, involves the tissue around the eye, including the eyelid. Both conditions are considered urgent emergencies which require prompt medical attention to avoid potential complications. Left untreated, orbital cellulitis can contribute to the development of several conditions, including meningitis, which can be deadly.

This condition is caused by an infection in or around the eye with a bacterium such as Staph. Trauma or recent surgery can be risk factors, as can a history of sinusitis, an infection of the sinuses. Orbital cellulitis is usually diagnosed on the basis of symptoms and medical tests such as bacterial cultures of the fluid draining from the eye, or medical imaging to visualize the eye in the socket. Typically an ophthalmologist will be consulted before a final diagnosis is made, to ensure that any similar conditions are ruled out.

Orbital and periorbital cellulitis are treated with antibiotics, which may be infused for rapid effect. In some cases, surgery may also be required to relieve pressure on the eye and to drain the abscess sometimes associated with orbital cellulitis. When a doctor works promptly, the condition is irritating, but treatable. Delay can result in loss of vision, or a spread of infection to the brain, resulting in a brain abscess or meningitis, two complications which are generally considered extremely undesirable.

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Several symptoms can indicate the presence of orbital cellulitis. Swelling and redness around the eye are common, with some cases of periorbital cellulitis becoming so swollen that the patient cannot open his or her eye. Restricted eye movement is common, as is a bulging eye, due to pressure from the infection. Patients also generally suffer from fever, a common side-effect of infection caused by the body's attempt to fight off the source of infection.

Children are most likely to get orbital cellulitis, but the condition can also manifest in adults. To avoid orbital cellulitis, people should be meticulous about washing their hands and faces, and keeping their hands away from their eyes as much as possible. After surgery around the eyes and face, prophylactic antibiotics can prevent the onset of infection, and in the case of people who experience sinusitis, finishing prescribed antibiotics is strongly recommended to reduce the risk of recurrent infections.

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