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Trachoma is an eye infection that can lead to blindness. Australia is the only developed country in the world with trachoma. Trachoma infection can be managed with support from health practitioners. Knowing the causes and symptoms can help to prevent trachoma.

What is trachoma?

Trachoma is an eye infection caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis. If not treated, this infection can cause eyelids to turn inwards, so that eyelashes rub on the eyeball, damaging the surface of the eye. This is called trichiasis, and is very painful. Repeated infections can cause blindness.

What causes trachoma?

The bacteria that causes trachoma is spread through direct contact with fluid from the eyes and nose of infected people. The bacteria can also be on personal items such as facecloths. Flies that have been in contact with infected eyes can also carry the bacteria between people.

As trachoma is easily transmitted between children, the condition often starts in childhood, but anybody can get infected at any age. People who have repeated infections can go blind in their 30s.

Trachoma is more common in areas where there is:

  • a lot of people living close together
  • poor access to water
  • poor toilet facilities
  • poor hygiene

Trachoma symptoms

Infected eyes might feel sticky, itchy, or be painful and there might be a discharge from the nose. In later stages a person might feel as if they have sand in their eyes.

Often there are no symptoms of trachoma in children.

Trachoma diagnosis

Health practitioners can diagnose trachoma using magnifiers and a flashlight. They might also take photographs of the eyes.

Trachoma treatment

Australia uses the World Health Organization recommended SAFE strategy. This consists of:

  • Surgery — eyelid surgery corrects in-turning of eyelashes
  • Antibiotics — to treat infection
  • Facial cleanliness — to stop infection spreading to others, and reduce re-infection
  • Environmental improvements — including improved sanitation and water facilities for households and communities

Trachoma prevention

Australian health practitioners follow national guidelines to manage trachoma.

There are simple steps people can take to prevent the spread of infection. These include teaching children good hygiene (thorough face-washing and hand-washing) and making sure family members don’t share towels and facecloths.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

Some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have high rates of trachoma.

Health services can provide information on prevention and treatment of trachoma, and refer people to eye specialists.

Culturally-specific information and resources for health practitioners are available through the Indigenous Eye Health Unit and the Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet.

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Last reviewed: April 2020

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