What is Trachoma?

Trachoma is a bacterial infection of the eyes. With fewer than a thousand cases per year, it is a rare condition in the United States. Conversely, it is extremely contagious and the leading cause of preventable blindness in the world. The infection can be spread through saliva, skin-to-skin contact, and touching contaminated surfaces like towels, clothing, and hands.

Chlamydia trachomatis, which is also responsible for chlamydia infections, is the bacterium that causes trachoma. It is commonly seen in young children from developing nations where poor sanitation, crowded living conditions, and poverty contribute to the spreading of the disease. In these locations, eye-seeking flies are a common means of transmission.

What are the Symptoms of Trachoma?

Trachoma almost always infects both eyes. Symptoms begin in a mild form in the early stages. Infections that are left untreated and secondary or repeated infections can eventually progress to more severe complications.

Symptoms include:

  • Itching
  • Irritation
  • Redness
  • Pink eye
  • Eyelash rubbing the eye
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Bumps on inside of the eyelid
  • Light sensitivity
  • Vision loss
  • Eyelid scarring
  • Pus or mucus discharge
  • Corneal ulcers

Trachoma Causes

Trachoma is caused by bacteria called Chlamydia trachomatis. The bacteria is highly infectious and can transfer directly from person to person, or to people via shared use of towels, for example.

The disease is most common in areas of poverty, where cramped living conditions and poor sanitation and access to working latrines makes it easier for the infection to spread. Children tend to be most at risk of contracting trachoma between the ages of 4 and 6, and women tend to have it more frequently than men.

Flies are also known to contribute to the spread of trachoma. This tends to happen when flies come into contact with the eyes or nose of an infected person and subsequently pass it on to others. Poverty-stricken areas with poor sanitation are more likely to have a high population of flies which is difficult to control, and inhabitants are therefore likely to develop trachoma.

Trachoma tends to be most common in developing countries where overcrowding, lack of clean water and poor sanitation is likely. The Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and some parts of southern Asia and China are regions where people are most at risk of the disease, but it can occur all over the world.

How is a Trachoma Treated?

Trachoma can be averted in most cases by following good hygiene practices, including frequent hand and face washing. Improved sanitation and access to clean water is essential for prevention. Early-stage infections are treated with the use of antibiotics, usually tetracycline or azithromycin in the form of oral drugs or eye ointments.

This is often enough to clear up the condition. In the later stages, surgery is needed when deformities occur. This may involve redirecting eyelashes away from the eye, a transplant of the cornea, and removal of eyelashes. The last of these procedures might have to be done several times. If surgery is not a viable option, adhesive bandages can be placed over the eyelashes to hold them away from the eye.

Trachoma Prevention

Preventing trachoma may be possible by adopting proper hygiene practices. Washing the face and hands regularly is vital, and avoiding the use of shared towels with individuals who may have the infection might help to prevent contamination. Having a fresh water source nearby can help with hygiene.

Controlling fly populations is also incredibly important. If possible, screens placed on windows and doors can minimize fly populations indoors. Proper disposal of human and animal waste, away from living environments, will also help to keep fly populations to a minimum.

There isn’t a vaccine for trachoma, but antibiotics may help to prevent infection in those who are at a particularly high risk of contracting it, for example if they live in crowded conditions with many people who have or have had the infection.

Last Reviewed:
October 11, 2016
Last Updated:
September 10, 2017