Scleritis and episcleritis

Last updated: January 29, 2020

Summarytoggle arrow icon

Scleritis is an inflammatory condition that affects the sclera, while episcleritis is an inflammatory condition that affects the episclera. Because the episclera is the outermost layer of the sclera, episcleritis is a more superficial condition. While the etiology of episcleritis is usually idiopathic, scleritis often occurs in individuals with underlying systemic disease (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus). Both conditions can also be caused by infections or reactions to medications. They are diagnosed based on the patient history and physical examination. A search for underlying systemic illness is especially important when scleritis is diagnosed, but it is also warranted in suspected episcleritis if there are other signs of systemic disease present (e.g., arthritis, rash). Systemic treatment with corticosteroids is generally required in necrotizing scleritis, scleritis that does not resolve with NSAIDs, and scleritis affecting the posterior portion of the sclera. In refractory cases, immunosuppressive drugs may be required. Episcleritis typically regresses after 1–2 weeks, and treatment is not necessary in most cases.

Anatomy of the eyetoggle arrow icon

Episcleritistoggle arrow icon

  • Definition: inflammation of the episclera
  • Epidemiology [1][2]
    • Mean age: ∼ 45 years
    • >
    • Unilateral in up to 70% of cases
  • Etiology [3]
  • Clinical features
    • Acute onset of symptoms
    • Mild eye pain/irritation and watering
    • Eye redness
    • Vision is not affected
  • Subtypes and variants
    • Simple/diffuse episcleritis: most common subtype
    • Nodular/focal episcleritis: prolonged inflammation, usually occurring in patients with underlying systemic disease
  • Diagnostics
  • Treatment
    • Symptomatic treatment (e.g., cold compresses, eye lubrication)
    • In persistent or severe cases: NSAIDs and/or topical steroids
    • Treatment of any underlying conditions
  • Prognosis [1][5]
    • In most cases, spontaneous regression occurs after 1–2 weeks.
    • Recurrent bouts of the disease may occur every 1–3 months.
    • Rarely progresses to reduced visual acuity

Although episcleritis is usually self-limiting, it manifests similarly to other, less innocuous conditions of the eye (e.g., scleritis, keratitis) that do require treatment. These conditions should be ruled out prior to diagnosing episcleritis (see “Differential diagnoses” below).

Scleritistoggle arrow icon

In a patient with focal eye pain with tenderness to palpation of the eye, with or without violet discoloration of the sclera, an ophthalmologic consult is warranted!

In order to diagnose scleritis, a workup should be done to evaluate for underlying systemic disease!

Differential diagnosestoggle arrow icon

Scleritis Episcleritis
Most common etiology
  • Systemic inflammation or infection
Clinical features
  • Subacute onset
  • Severe pain exacerbated by eye movement
  • Visual disturbances and photophobia
  • Phenylephrine eye drops → nonblanching
  • Blue coloration of the eye (deep inflammation)
  • Eye changes (e.g., nodules, thinning of the sclera, corneal changes)
  • Signs of systemic illness (e.g., arthritis, rash)
  • Permanent partial loss of vision is possible.

The differential diagnoses listed here are not exhaustive.

Referencestoggle arrow icon

  1. Yu-Keh EN. Episcleritis. In: Dahl AA, Episcleritis. New York, NY: WebMD. Updated: July 15, 2019. Accessed: January 28, 2020.
  2. Episcleritis. Updated: April 6, 2018. Accessed: January 28, 2020.
  3. Associated Diseases and Diagnostic Evaluation (Scleritis and Episcleritis). . Accessed: January 28, 2020.
  4. A Red Eye: Scleritis or Episcleritis?. Updated: November 15, 2017. Accessed: January 28, 2020.
  5. Dana R. Episcleritis. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. Last updated: April 25, 2019. Accessed: January 28, 2020.
  6. Scleritis. Updated: May 9, 2018. Accessed: January 28, 2020.
  7. Dana R. Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of scleritis. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. Last updated: July 10, 2019. Accessed: January 28, 2020.
  8. Scleritis. Updated: November 25, 2019. Accessed: January 28, 2020.
  9. Roque MR. Scleritis Workup. In: Dahl AA, Scleritis Workup. New York, NY: WebMD. Updated: August 29, 2019. Accessed: January 28, 2020.
  10. Treatment. . Accessed: January 28, 2020.
  11. Dana R. Treatment of scleritis. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. Last updated: February 6, 2019. Accessed: January 29, 2020.

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