Causes of Bulging Eyes (Exophthalmos)

Bulging eyes, which your doctor may call "exophthalmos," can be a sign of infection, thyroid problems, or other medical issues. It's important to get it checked by a doctor so you can start treatment for the condition that's causing it.

Thyroid Eye Disease

Thyroid eye disease is the leading cause of bulging eyes. It affects about 30% of people who have the immune system disorder called Graves' disease. If you have Graves' disease, your body makes too much thyroid hormone.

Anyone can get Graves' disease, but it typically affects women before age 40.

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With thyroid eye disease, your immune system -- the body's defense against germs -- attacks tissue around the eyes. This causes them to swell and push forward, giving them a "bulging" appearance.

You might have other symptoms like:

  • A dry, gritty feeling in your eyes
  • Pressure or pain in your eyes
  • Puffy eyelids
  • Red or inflamed eyes
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Double vision or vision loss

If you have any of these problems, see your doctor. They'll treat your specific eye symptoms as well as your thyroid hormone levels.

Though less common, Graves' eye disease can also happen to people with an underactive thyroid gland. In rare cases, people with normal thyroid levels can get it, too.


An eye injury can cause swelling or bleeding in your eye socket. Your eye may bulge when blood collects behind it.

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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

Your doctor will treat the injury and drain any fluid that has collected.


Many infections can attack the eye and inflame your eye socket.

A common infection of the eye is orbital cellulitis. It can lead to more serious problems if you don't get treatment. Along with bulging eyes, symptoms include:

  • Swelling of the eyelid
  • Pain
  • A hard time moving the eye
  • Fever
  • Redness in or around the eye

Call your doctor if you think an infection is the cause of your bulging eye. You could need antibiotics or possibly surgery.


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In this eye disorder, increased pressure in the eyes damages the nerves that connect the eyes to the brain. Usually, this is asymptomatic, but in severe cases the pressure can cause the eyes to bulge.

Other symptoms include extra tears and being sensitive to light.

Because there are usually not symptoms early on, it is import to get checked and treated for glaucoma to prevent vision loss. Your doctor will prescribe medication to lessen the pressure on your eyes. You might also need surgery.

Tumor Behind the Eye

A tumor can form behind the eye and force it forward. It can be cancerous or noncancerous (benign). Other signs of a tumor behind the eye 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

Doctors can remove some tumors with surgery. If the tumor is cancerous, you might need surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy.

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