Bulging Eyes Causes and Concerns

By Jennifer Nadel, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
June 21, 2022

Bulging eyes can be a cause for concern for many people. While it is not always a sign of a serious health problem, it can sometimes be a symptom of something more serious.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what causes bulging eyes and what you can do about it.

We’ll also discuss some of the concerns that people have with this condition.

What are Bulging Eyes? 

Proptosis and exophthalmos are the medical terms used to describe bulging eyes.

Exophthalmos refers to the forward displacement of the eye, while proptosis is a more general term that can refer to any bulging or protrusion of the eye.

Bulging eyes can occur in one eye or both eyes and may be more pronounced on one side.

If the white of your eye shows between your iris and your upper eyelid, it may be a sign of abnormal bulging.

The sudden bulging of one eye requires emergency medical attention.

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Causes 

There are many possible causes of bulging eyes, some of which are more serious than others.

Hyperthyroidism 

Hyperthyroidism is a condition that occurs when the thyroid gland produces too much thyroid hormone.

People with hyperthyroidism may notice that their eyes bulge out more than usual. This is because the thyroid hormone speeds up the metabolism, which can lead to an increase in pressure inside the eye.

Other symptoms of hyperthyroidism include anxiety, weight loss, and fatigue.

Graves’ Disease

Graves’ disease affects nearly 1 in 100 Americans. Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes the thyroid gland to produce too much thyroid hormone.

It often occurs in people who have a family history of the condition. Like hyperthyroidism, Graves’ disease can cause bulging eyes and other symptoms.

Orbital Cellulitis 

Orbital cellulitis is a serious infection of the tissues around the eye.

It can cause the eye to bulge out and may be accompanied by other symptoms, such as pain, redness, and swelling.

People with orbital cellulitis may also have a fever and difficulty and/or pain moving the affected eye. This condition requires emergency medical treatment.

Orbital Tumor

An orbital tumor is a growth that develops in the tissues around the eye.

It can cause the eye to bulge out and may be accompanied by other symptoms, such as pain, double vision, and difficulty moving the affected eye.

Most orbital tumors are benign, but some can be cancerous. Orbital tumors require prompt medical treatment.

Hemangioma

A hemangioma is a birthmark that occurs when there is an overgrowth of blood vessels in the skin. It can occur anywhere on the body, including the eyelid.

A hemangioma can cause the eye to bulge out and may be accompanied by other symptoms, such as redness and swelling. Hemangiomas usually disappear on their own within a few months or years.

Trauma

An injury like a blow to the head can cause the eye to bulge out. This is because the trauma can damage the muscles and tissues that hold the eye in place.

Trauma to the eye can also cause other symptoms, such as pain, change in vision, redness, and swelling.

Other injuries that can cause bulging eyes include car accidents and falls.

This is an emergency and needs emergency medical treatment.

Other signs of an eye injury include:

  • Consistent pain
  • One eye that doesn’t move as well as the other
  • The feeling that something is in your eye
  • Vision changes, such as problems seeing out of the hurt eye

Infection 

An infection can cause the eye to bulge out.

This is because the infection can cause the muscles and tissues that hold the eye in place to become inflamed.

Infections that can cause bulging eyes include sinus infections, ear infections, and tooth infections.

Other symptoms include:

Sarcoidosis 

Sarcoidosis is a condition that occurs when the body produces too many cells in an attempt to fight off an infection. The excess cells can form lumps called granulomas.

Sarcoidosis can affect any organ in the body, including the eye.

It can cause the eye to bulge out and may be accompanied by other symptoms, such as pain, redness, and swelling.

Certain Cancers

Certain types of cancer like lymphoma and leukemia can cause the eye to bulge out.

This is because cancer can cause the muscles and tissues that hold the eye in place to become inflamed.

Cancer that can cause bulging eyes include lymphoma, leukemia, and brain tumors.

Other signs of a tumor include:

  • Numbness, tingling, or pain in the eye
  • Vision changes
  • Swollen or droopy eyelid
  • You’re not able to move both eyes in sync with each other, leading to double vision

Risk Factors 

If left untreated, bulging eyes can lead to serious complications, such as vision loss.

In rare cases, bulging eyes can also cause the eyeball to rupture.

People with exophthalmos are more likely to develop conjunctivitis, and especially superior limbic keratoconjunctivitis, in which the area above the cornea becomes inflamed due to abnormal tearing and blinking.

Rarely, some people may experience compression of the optic nerve or ophthalmic artery, which can eventually affect eyesight and possibly lead to blindness.

Diagnosis

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history to determine the potential causes of your symptoms.

They will also perform an eye exam that may include:

  • Using a slit lamp to magnify the eye’s surface and structures.
  • Assessing eye and eyelid movement.
  • Check eye pressures.
  • Checking for redness, soreness, and irritation.

Other tests could include:

  • Exophthalmometry, which uses a special instrument to measure how far the eyeball is pushing out from the eye socket.
  • Blood tests, including workup for thyroid disease.
  • Imaging studies, such as an MRI or CT scan, to check for bleeding, tumors, or signs of infection.
  • Other lab tests, like a blood or tissue culture to confirm or rule out an infection.

Treatment

Treatment for bulging eyes will depend on the underlying cause.

  • Artificial tears, including drops or gel to relieve dry eyes and protect the cornea
  • Antibiotics if you have an infection
  • Medical treatments for underlying conditions, such as medications for hyperthyroidism
  • IV medication teprotumumab

Other therapies may include:

  • Double vision treatments, including prisms that attach to your glasses and redirect light as it enters your eye
  • Immunosuppressive drugs may lessen the impact of immune system attacks on your eyes
  • Corticosteroids you receive by injection or through a vein in your arm to relieve swelling or restore eyesight

Prevention

You can reduce your risk of bulging eyes by:

  • Wearing protective gear when participating in sports or other activities that could result in eye injury
  • Practicing good hygiene to avoid infections
  • Avoiding exposure to irritants such as smoke, fumes, and dust
  • Getting regular checkups to identify any potential problems early
  • Keeping thyroid levels under control
  • Wearing sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays
  • Quit smoking to reduce your risk of sarcoidosis
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When to See a Medical Provider 

See your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of bulging eyes. 

Symptoms that require immediate emergency medical attention include vision changes, severe pain, and bleeding from the eye.

Your healthcare provider may recommend surgery to:

  • Remove a tumor
  • Create more space behind the eye in the eye socket
  • Treat double vision
  • Protect your cornea if you cannot fully close your eyelids

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed, text with a healthcare provider in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What causes bulging eyes?
There are several potential causes of bulging eyes, including Graves’ disease, cancer, tumors, trauma, and infection.
Are bulging eyes serious?
While bulging eyes are not usually serious, they can be a sign of a more serious underlying condition. If you experience bulging eyes, you should see a healthcare provider to determine the cause.
Can bulging eyes be corrected?
Yes, bulging eyes can be corrected with surgery or other medical treatments. Your healthcare team will recommend the best treatment option depending on the cause.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Jennifer Nadel, MD

Dr. Jennifer Nadel is a board certified emergency medicine physician and received her medical degree from the George Washington University School of Medicine. She has worked in varied practice environments, including academic urban level-one trauma centers, community hospital emergency departments, skilled nursing facilities, telemedicine, EMS medical control, and flight medicine.

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