Exophthalmos: Definition, Causes & Treatment

Instructor: Marisela Duque

Marisela teaches nursing courses at the college level. She also works as a unit educator, teaching experienced nurses about changes in nursing practice.

After completing this lesson you will be able to explain exophthalmos, what causes this condition, and the available treatment options. A short quiz follows this lesson.

Definition of Exophthalmos

Imagine that you are 5 years old again and you and your best friend are bored at home on a rainy summer day. To pass the time, you come up with the genius idea to make mud pies in the kitchen. You present your masterpiece to your mom, expecting her to be impressed. But you are shocked to discover that she is not at all mesmerized by your handiwork. In fact, all she sees are muddy hand prints all over her just-cleaned, white kitchen. Then she gives you 'THE LOOK.' You know the look; it's so severe that you think her eyes might jump out of their sockets and slap you across the head.

As funny as this scenario may be, many people suffer from a medical condition called exophthalmos, in which their eyes always have that 'look', the appearance of bulging eyeballs. It can occur in one or both eyes. Usually the white above the iris (colored part of the eye) is not visible, except when the eyes are bulging, and for people with exophthalmos. Luckily the condition is treatable (keep reading to find out more).

Someone with exophthalmos may appear to be staring or shocked


This condition can be caused by a number of different illnesses, including Graves' disease, glaucoma, and leukemia to name a few. Graves' disease is the most common cause of this condition. It is an autoimmune disease in which your body produces an excess of the thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism). This disease can occur in anyone but it's more common among women under 40 years old. People with this disease always look like they are staring and seldom blink (so don't bet against them in a staring contest). All jokes aside, exophthalmos can make people very self-conscious about their appearance and emotional support is important. In some cases it can be a symptom of a serious illness, so persons with this condition should seek care from a medical professional.

Treatment Options

Treatment begins by treating the underlying cause of the exophthalmos. If the condition is caused by Grave's, then treatment is geared toward inhibiting the excess thyroid hormones. Treatment for this includes: radioactive iodine therapy, anti-thyroid medications, and surgery to remove all or part of the thyroid gland.

Treatment for exophthalmos involves relieving the symptoms that accompany the condition, such as eye dryness, sensitivity to light, and soreness. Measures that may help alleviate these include:

  • Quit smoking (smoking can make eye problems worse)
  • Sleep with your head raised to relieve puffiness
  • Wear sunglasses to decrease sensitivity to light
  • Use artificial tears to relieve dryness

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