Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Corneal ulcers

4-minute read

On this page


A corneal ulcer will make the affected eye red and painful. They are particularly common in people who wear contact lenses. You should seek prompt medical treatment if you think you might have a corneal ulcer. Left untreated, corneal ulcers can damage your sight.


What are corneal ulcers?

A corneal ulcer is an open sore on the cornea, which is the clear dome that covers the coloured iris in the eye.

Corneal ulcers are often caused by infection. This includes, for example, when infection follows a physical injury to the cornea.

Injuries that seem minor can cause corneal ulcers, and you should seek medical attention promptly if you have an eye injury. Without proper treatment, a corneal ulcer might develop scarring that impairs your vision, or even leads to cataracts or glaucoma.

Illustration showing a cross section of an eye.
Cross-section of the eye, showing the cornea at the front.

Back to top


What are the symptoms of corneal ulcers?

A corneal ulcer might make your affected eye:

  • red and irritated
  • painful
  • feel like it has something in it
  • discharge tears or pus
  • have blurry vision
  • sensitive to bright light

You should see your ophthalmologist (medical eye specialist) or doctor if you have these symptoms, and over-the-counter eye drops do not cause improvement within 1 day.

Immediate medical treatment for a corneal ulcer lessens the chance of long-term damage to your vision.

Back to top


What causes corneal ulcers?

Corneal ulcers are usually caused by bacterial infection (inflammation of the cornea is also known as bacterial keratitis). They can also be caused by viral or fungal infection, or trauma.

Infections are more common if you:

  • wear contact lenses, especially overnight
  • have dry eyes
  • have had corneal damage or eyelid surgery in the past
  • have an underactive immune system
  • have certain eye allergies

An ulcer can also be caused by damage to the cornea from a foreign object or small particle.

Back to top


How are corneal ulcers diagnosed?

A large ulcer can be seen as a white spot on the cornea, but some ulcers can only be seen with closer investigation.

Your doctor or ophthalmologist will probably check your vision and examine the cornea using a special lamp. They might drop a small amount of dye into your eye to make any ulcer show up more clearly.

To work out what has caused any underlying infection, the ophthalmologist might take a sample scraping from the ulcer for analysis.

Back to top


How are corneal ulcers treated?

If the ulcer was caused by a foreign body in the eye, your doctor will first remove the object.

Corneal ulcers are usually treated with antibiotics, often given as eye drops. If your ulcer was caused by dirt, you might be given an anti-fungal medication.

If you wear contact lenses and have a corneal ulcer, you should take the lenses out straight away. Avoid rubbing your eyes, and wash your hands to stop any infection spreading. A cool compress can give some relief, as can over-the-counter pain relief medicine.

Corneal ulcers often improve after 2 or 3 weeks of treatment. An ulcer in the centre of the eye might take longer.

If the ulcer fails to heal, or leaves significant scarring of the cornea, your ophthalmologist might recommend cornea transplant surgery.

Back to top


Can corneal ulcers be prevented?

You can help prevent corneal ulcers by taking care of your eyes, and by seeing your doctor promptly if your eyes seem infected or have something in them.

If you wear contact lenses, you can help prevent corneal ulcers by:

  • cleaning and storing the lenses carefully
  • not wearing them longer than you should
  • avoiding wearing contact lenses overnight

If you have dry eye syndrome, or your lids do not close completely, keep your eyes moist with tear-substitute eye drops.

Wear goggles to protect your eyes from particles — for example, when you are gardening or using power tools.

Back to top

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2019

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Red eye - myDr.com.au

Red eye is the term used when irritation or infection causes the eye to be red, itchy, watery and feel gritty. It's sometimes known as a 'bloodshot eye'.

Read more on myDr website

Common eye infections | Australian Prescriber

Antibiotic drops are not the treatment for all red eyes. An incorrect diagnosis can increase the risk of loss of vision.

Read more on Australian Prescriber website

Indigenous Australia Program | Fred Hollows

Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander adults are six times more likely to go blind, but 94% of this is preventable or treatable. Here's what we're doing about it.

Read more on Fred Hollows Foundation website

Trachoma disease - causes & treatment - Fred Hollows

Trachoma is the leading infectious cause of blindness in the world today. Learn more.

Read more on Fred Hollows Foundation website

The National Trachoma Program | Fred Hollows

Fred wanted trachoma eradicated from Australia. In the 1970's, he led a medical program to visit over 100,000 people in remote Australia. Learn more.

Read more on Fred Hollows Foundation website

Stye - myDr.com.au

A stye (sty) is an infection of a follicle or gland at the base of an eyelash, caused by bacteria, usually Staphylococcus. It happens when the follicle becomes clogged with oil or dirt.

Read more on myDr website

Eyelid and eyelash problems - myDr.com.au

Common eye problems include inflammation and infection of the eyelids and eyelashes, also called blepharitis and styes. Find out what products are available for eyelid and eyelash problems.

Read more on myDr website

Styes - Better Health Channel

Styes may be red and sore, but they generally do not cause any damage to the eye or eyelids.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Dry eye - Better Health Channel

A person suffering from dry eye syndrome does not have enough of the right kind of tears to keep the eye comfortable.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Eye Health | Common Eye Conditions | Glossary of Eye Conditions

A glossary of eye conditions including information on cataract, diabetic retinopathy, as well as definitions of myopia, hyperopia, and glaucoma. Read more.

Read more on Fred Hollows Foundation website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo