Blepharitis is typically classified as anterior or posterior, and it has many causes. While anterior blepharitis is curable, posterior blepharitis is a chronic, incurable disease.
“If you don’t know the cause, you don’t know how to treat,” according to Scheffer C. G. Tseng, MD, PhD, Medical Director of the Ocular Surface Center in Miami. “Blepharitis is characterized by inflammation of the eyelids, but we do not know with certainty what actually causes this inflammation. Is the cause of blepharitis purely infectious, purely inflammatory or a combination of both? If it is caused by infection, is it bacteria, fungi or parasites? These questions have not been well resolved in the literature, as no definitive study has clearly separated the relative contribution of these diverse causes. How we differentiate infectious from inflammatory processes remains a clinical challenge.”
Anterior blepharitis is most commonly caused by a staphylococcal infection of the lid margin. “Golden crusting is pretty typical. Sometimes, the ophthalmologist will perform a culture just to confirm it because, occasionally, there will be multi-antibiotic-resistant staph,” says Stephen C. Pflugfelder, MD, from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
Blepharitis caused by bacteria is typically treated with a topical antibiotic, either a drop or an ointment that is put on the lid.
Another cause of anterior blepharitis is a mite called Demodex. “The classic signs of this are cylindrical sleeves on the lashes,” Dr. Pflugfelder says. “Demodex is diagnosed by pulling out a couple of lashes and examining them under the microscope for the presence of mites. The treatment for Demodex is usually tea tree oil. There is now commercial tea tree oil on a moistened swab called Cliradex.”
Recently, Dr. Tseng conducted a study to determine whether there was a relationship between mites and bacteria.1
A previous study had described a bacillus
bacterium found in the intestine of the mites and explained how this bacterium might play a key role in causing inflammation in rosacea patients.2
Dr. Tseng’s study concluded that rosacea blepharitis is highly associated with Demodex mite infestation and the presence of autoantibodies against this bacillus
bacterium’s proteins in the serum of these blepharitis patients. “Therefore, one cannot rule out that the inflammatory response noted in blepharitis patients might well be coming from the symbiotic bacteria inside of a parasite,” he says. “Because of the hidden nature of these bacteria, antibiotics alone might not be sufficient and effective. That is why we also need to consider lid hygiene, especially the inclusion of an effective agent, such as Cliradex, as a new strategy of reducing Demodex infestation in managing blepharitis.”
Another type of anterior blepharitis is seborrheic blepharitis. People with this condition have evidence of flaking in their eyebrows or in their lashes. “Treatment is usually mechanical scrubs and anti-seborrheic shampoos,” Dr. Pflugfelder says.
According to Rick Fraunfelder, MD, MBA, from Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, there is also a type of blepharitis called angular blepharitis, in which the patient gets a crusting and inflammation of the angles of the eyelids temporally. “That’s usually infectious in nature as well,” he says.
By far, the most common type of blepharitis is posterior blepharitis, or meibomian gland disease. Treatment for posterior blepharitis varies from just warm moist compresses and massage to oral doxycycline or tetracycline antibiotics, oral nutritional supplements with fish oil and other anti-inflammatory polyunsaturated fats. “There are some topical treatments, too, including topical steroids and topical azithromycin,” Dr. Pflugfelder says. “Usually, I start treatment with orals, such as a low-dose oral doxycycline and a nutritional supplement. I use one that has fish oil and gamma linoleic acid. If those don’t work, I will add topical steroids or topical azithromycin.”
The Tear Film and Ocular Surface Society International Report on Meibomian Gland Dysfunction
provides the definition, classification, diagnostic criteria and suggested therapies for each type and stage of blepharitis.3
Marguerite McDonald, MD, from Ophthalmic Consultants of Long Island in New York, says that her current treatment algorithm closely reflects their recommendations as well as her own clinical experience.
Her basic treatment for mild, stage 1 blepharitis is hot soaks and scrubs. “First, the patient applies two minutes of a wet, warm washcloth over closed eyes to loosen all the lid scurf and to mobilize the altered meibum,” says Dr. McDonald. “After the hot soaks, the scrubs are done with over-the-counter eyelid cleansing pads, such as the Ocusoft pads. There is a specific technique for effective lid scrubs. If you don’t show people how to scrub their lids, they will do it incorrectly; the devil is in the details.”
|Figure 1. Meibomian gland dysfunction. (Image courtesy Stephen C. Pflugfelder, MD.)
If a patient has extremely mild meibomian gland disease, then hot soaks and scrubs are all she recommends. If patients have mild-to-moderate disease, she adds AzaSite rubbed into the lid margins twice a day, which is an off-label use. “Patients put one drop of AzaSite on one index finger, rub it between both index fingers, and then rub it on the four lid margins, where the eyelashes dive into the skin on the top of the eyelid wall,” she says.
AzaSite can be expensive on some insurance plans, however, and some patients have arthritis or are not coordinated enough to use it. If cost is an issue, or if they sleep with their eyes open, she recommends erythromycin ointment at night instead of Azasite twice a day. “Patients need to apply this ointment immediately before they go to sleep because it can cause blurry vision. I instruct the patients that they should apply more if they get up in the middle of the night. Erythromycin ointment is generic, and it is covered by every insurance plan,” she adds.
If patients have moderate-to-advanced dry eye, she prescribes doxycycline 50 mg by mouth each day (more severe cases require it twice a day) for at least six months. Ophthalmologists can also write a prescription for an Ocudox kit, which contains a supply of eyelid cleansing pads as well as doxycycline 50 mg tablets. “Patients must be warned that, even at this low dose, oral doxycycline increases their sensitivity to the sun, so they should wear a hat, a shirt and sunblock when they are outside,” says Dr. McDonald. “They also shouldn’t take doxycycline one hour before or after a meal containing dairy products because dairy inactivates it.”
Blepharitis and Dry Eye
Dr. McDonald notes that blepharitis causes or greatly exacerbates most cases of dry eye, and these two diagnoses are frequently found in the same patients. So, because blepharitis patients often also have dry eye, they are also often on artificial tears and Restasis. “Starting at stage 1, I start the patients on omega-3 nutritional supplements, as there is now much evidence to suggest that omega-3s help in the treatment of dry eyes and blepharitis,” she says. “My favorite formulation is Tozal because it is by prescription, it is usually covered by insurance, and it is extremely pure (i.e., all of the mercury has been removed). Tozal also contains lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been shown to offer a clinically significant degree of protection against age-related macular degeneration. It is the formula that NASA developed for the astronauts in the space station, so it has a great pedigree. Another benefit is that Tozal capsules are smaller than virtually all of the other omega-3 soft gels.”
For the mild–to-moderate dry eye that almost always accompanies blepharitis, she recommends Fresh Kote, which until recently was the only artificial tear in the United States that was by prescription and covered by insurance. “Fresh Kote has all three layers of the natural tear film,” she says. “If it’s not on patients’ plans or if the copay is too high, then we advocate Blink, Optive and/or Systane Balance.”
When a patient reaches a tear osmolarity score of 317 mOsm/L, Dr. McDonald adds Restasis drops twice a day, accompanied by a quick-tapering dose of Lotemax gel (except for steroid responders or glaucoma patients). She prescribes Lotemax gel four times a day for two weeks, then twice a day for two weeks, after which they stop. “Lotemax gel does two things: the steroid masks the sting that often accompanies the first few weeks of Restasis therapy, and it also provides immediate symptomatic relief,” she says. “Restasis takes about a month to kick in, during which time many patients get discouraged and stop using it without a few weeks of a mild topical steroid such as Lotemax gel.”
When patients reach a tear osmolarity score of 325 mOsm/L or higher, she does not advocate Fresh Kote or any of the other bottled tears. She switches these patients to unit-dose, preservative-free artificial tears, at least until their tear osmolarity score drops below 325 mOsm/L.
Lipiflow and IPL
These treatment regimens for blepharitis are time-consuming. For patients who are doing everything right but are still suffering, or for patients who cannot do the regimen or who do not want to do the regimen, Lipiflow can be offered.
Lipiflow is a 12-minute, pulsating thermal lid massage that feels like a spa treatment, according to Dr. McDonald. “It allows patients to feel a lot better for about a year, while they are doing much less of the regimen that they hate,” she adds.
At the beginning of the procedure, eye cups are placed over the patient’s eyelids. During the first two minutes of the treatment, the lids are gently warmed. “Then, gentle pulsations start, and all of their ‘eyelid goo’ is expelled into the eyecup,” she says. “The eyecups are removed after 12 minutes and are thrown away; they are never used for another patient. I tell the patients that they will feel better immediately and will get a little bit better every day for six months, at which point they will reach the maximum benefit from that one 12-minute treatment. They will hold the benefit for nine to 12 months on average, with a range of six to 36 months.”
Other ophthalmologists are achieving similar results. A recent study conducted at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary found that a single 12-minute treatment with the Lipiflow system offers an effective treatment for evaporative dry eye and meibomian gland dysfunction resulting in a significant and sustained improvement in signs and symptoms for up to one year.4
The study included 18 patients who underwent Lipiflow and then were able to be followed for one year. Both eyes of each patient were treated, and meibomian gland function, tear breakup time and dry-eye symptoms were measured.
There was a significant improvement in meibomian gland secretion scores from baseline measurements to one-month post-treatment that was maintained at one year. Additionally, tear breakup time was significantly increased from baseline to one month, but this improvement was not maintained at one year. However, the significant improvement in symptom scores on the Ocular Surface Disease Index and the Standard Patient Evaluation of Eye Dryness questionnaire seen at one month was maintained at one year.
Dr. McDonald has not yet had a patient who required a repeat treatment in less than one year. Patients are given instructions about what to cut from their treatment regimen (and in what order) as they begin to feel better. “They remove one item from their regimen each month,” she says. “We tell them that there is patient-to-patient variability in how much they can ‘jettison’ from their routine, so if they begin to feel poorly, they should add back the last item they discontinued.”
Dr. McDonald sees the Lipiflow technology as a wonderful addition to her practice. “Like anything else, one must set the patients’ expectations properly,” she says. “Ophthalmologists make about as much money from Lipiflow treatments as they do from LASIK. There is strong science behind the procedure, patients are happy, and there is virtually no liability.”
According to Dr. Fraunfelder, a treatment called intense pulsed light has also been used to treat blepharitis. “It is a laser treatment to heat up the meibomian glands,” he says. “The IPL closes down the irregular blood vessels on the eyelid margin, which are called telangiectasias. IPL is a little more uncomfortable than just light and heat.” REVIEW
1. Li J, O’Reilly N, Sheha H, Katz R, Raju VK, Kavanagh K, Tseng SCG. Correlation between ocular demodex infestation and serum immunoreactivity to bacillus proteins in patients with facial rosacea. Ophthalmology 2010;117:870-877.
2. O’Reilly N, Menezes N, Kavanagh K. Positive correlation between serum immunoreactivity to Demodex-associated Bacillus proteins and erythematotelangiectatic rosacea. Br J Dermatol 2012;167(5):1032-1036.
3. Asbell PA, Stapleton FJ, Wickstrom K, et al. The international workshop on meibomian gland dysfunction: Report of the clinical trials subcommittee. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci 2011;52(4):2065-2085.
4. Greiner JV. Long-term (12-month) improvement in meibomian gland function and reduced dry eye symptoms with a single thermal pulsation treatment. Clin Experiment Ophthalmol 2013;41(6):524-530.