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HIV and the Eyes

What is HIV?

HIV is the abbreviation used for the human immunodeficiency virus. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). AIDS is a life-threatening but preventable disease.

HIV attacks the body's immune system. The immune system is the body's defense against infections. With time, HIV weakens your ability to fight off serious infections and some cancers. When this happens, HIV infection becomes AIDS.

How does AIDS affect the eyes?

About two-thirds of people with HIV or AIDS develop eye problems. Almost any part of the eye can be affected. The problems can range from mild to severe. HIV/AIDS can cause blindness.

People with HIV or AIDS are more likely to get certain infections that can affect the retina (light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye). The infections may cause various problems, including:

  • problems with blood vessels in the retina, including bleeding
  • infection of the retina and the tissue behind the retina
  • death of some tissue in the retina
  • detachment of the retina from the back wall of the eye

Other eye problems that can happen with AIDS include:

  • Kaposi's sarcoma. This tumor may appear as a red or purple mass on the white part of the eye or a purple nodule on the eyelid. It can also appear on other places of the body, most commonly the skin or mouth.
  • Herpes zoster ophthalmicus. This damage in and around the eye is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox and shingles. This virus can damage the front and back of the eye, causing pain and loss of vision.

Finally, AIDS often can affect the brain. Changes in the brain that then affect the eyes may cause:

  • problems with eye movement
  • blurred vision
  • double vision
  • blindness

What are the symptoms of AIDS-related eye problems?

Most people with AIDS and AIDS-related eye problems have no symptoms at all. People with HIV/AIDS should get regular eye exams. Ask your provider how often you should have your eyes checked. Possible symptoms of AIDS-related eye problems are:

  • floating spots in your vision
  • loss of vision
  • a bright red or purple growth near the corner of the eye (Kaposi's sarcoma)
  • blurred vision
  • changes in color vision
  • watery eyes
  • red eyes
  • painful sensitivity to light
  • swollen eyelids
  • eye pain
  • fluid-filled blisters on or inside your eyelids or elsewhere on your face

What is the treatment?

Medicines for AIDS-related eye problems depend on the problem. For example:

  • Ganciclovir, cidofovir, valganciclovir, and foscarnet can help treat an infection of the retina.
  • Acyclovir and valacyclovir can lessen the symptoms of herpes infections.
  • Antibiotics treat infections caused by bacteria.
  • Antifungal agents treat infections caused by fungi.

How can I take care of myself?

  • All patients with HIV/AIDS should have regular eye exams. Ask your provider how often you should have your eyes checked.
  • If your vision worsens, you see floating spots in your vision, or you have pain in your eye, it could be a sign of a serious problem. Contact your healthcare provider right away.

For more information on AIDS, call the 24-hour CDC Hotline: 1-800-232-4636.

Reviewed for medical accuracy by faculty at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins. Web site:
Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-07-20
Last reviewed: 2010-09-07
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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