The meibomian glands, located in the upper and lower eyelids, secrete oils that help lubricate the eyes. When these glands become inflamed or infected, the condition is known as meibomianitis. Most cases are caused by thickening of the oil, which helps bacteria grow in and near the glands.
Oils secreted by the meibomian glands slowly absorb into the tear film, a thin layer of moisture which covers the eyes. The tear film is largely water, which would evaporate quickly if the oils were not present to help prevent this. Without the tear film, the eyes would quickly become dry, scratchy, and irritated, meaning that the meibomian oils are important for ocular health.
Meibomianitis inflammation occurs when oils secreted by the meibomian glands become thicker than normal. When this happens, the glands secrete oil that does not spread over the tear film as usual. Instead, oil builds up on the edges of the eyelids. The build-up of oil provides extra nourishment that allows for an overgrowth of skin bacteria. The resulting inflammation is called meibomianitis.
Symptoms of the condition include swelling of the eyelids, and blurred vision that can be cleared by blinking. People with this eyelid inflammation are also more likely to develop styes, which occur when bacteria enter one of the meibomian glands. The affected part of the eyelid becomes tender and inflamed, and a swollen red bump develops. Most styes will clear up without treatment.
Inflammation of the meibomian glands often occurs in conjunction with a condition called blepharitis. The latter condition is also due to inflammation, but in this case the inflammation occurs in the margins of the eyelid rather than near or in the meibomian glands. Blepharitis causes a scaly, dandruff-like substance to build up on the lids, and may cause the eyes to feel dry and itchy.
Meibomianitis treatment is usually simple and does not always require medication. Most cases will clear up after a few days with no treatment other than keeping the area clean and dry. If this does not occur, a doctor can prescribe topical antibiotic cream that will resolve most cases. If the inflammation is caused by another condition such as acne, treatment for the underlying condition may also be required.
Most cases of meibomianitis do not cause any lasting damage to the eyelid or eye area in general. In a very few cases, especially when blepharitis is also involved, corneal ulcers or another condition may develop. This is extremely rare, but can cause considerable damage to the eye. For this reason any eye inflammation should be taken seriously, and medical treatment should be obtained if inflammation does not clear up after a few days.