Recurrent corneal epithelial erosion syndrome


Recurrent breakdown of corneal epithelium due to defective adhesion to basement membrane
Prevalence greatest between third and fourth decade
Initial cause may have been traumatic, but underlying epithelial dystrophy may also be present
Repair of epithelial basement membrane and associated epithelial adhesion complex takes around three months if largely undisturbed

Predisposing factors

Most commonly:

  • History of superficial trauma, especially finger nail injuries: (45-64% of cases)
  • Corneal dystrophy (especially epithelial basement membrane dystrophy [also known as map-dot-fingerprint dystrophy or Cogan’s dystrophy]) (26-29% of cases)

Other predisposing factors include: dry eye disease, diabetes and previous refractive surgery (particularly PRK)

Symptoms of recurrent corneal epithelial erosion syndrome

Unilateral sharp pain, typically sudden onset on waking and opening eyes; may also awake patient in middle of night
Feeling as if eyelid is stuck to eyeball
Blurred vision
May recur over weeks, months or years

Signs of recurrent corneal epithelial erosion syndrome

Epithelial erosion (usually inferior paracentral cornea)

  • stains with fluorescein
  • ‘loose’ edges, ‘slipped rug’ appearance

Intra-epithelial microcysts
Mild stromal oedema
NB: examine both eyes for signs of corneal dystrophy

Differential diagnosis

Herpes simplex keratitis
Exposure keratopathy
Other corneal dystrophies with epithelial manifestations
Contact lens-related epithelial conditions

Management by optometrist

Practitioners should work within their scope of practice, and where necessary seek further advice or refer the patient elsewhere

Non pharmacological

Bandage contact lens (although trials suggest that bandage lenses are equivalent to lubrication alone in symptom control)
(GRADE*: Level of evidence=low, Strength of recommendation=weak)


Mild cases:
ocular lubricants

  • artificial tears (preferably unpreserved) frequently during day

(GRADE*: Level of evidence=low, Strength of recommendation=strong)

  • unmedicated paraffin-based ointment (e.g. Simple Eye Ointment) before sleep – should be continued for at least 3 months from date of last recurrence (however, one study showed that the use of unmedicated ointment at night for two months following traumatic corneal abrasions led to increased symptoms of recurrent corneal erosion)

(GRADE*: Level of evidence=low, Strength of recommendation=weak)

  • Advise patient to return/seek further help if symptoms persist

More severe cases with large area of epithelial loss:

(GRADE*: Level of evidence=low, Strength of recommendation=strong)

  • In cases which fail to respond to conservative measures, consider a 12-week trial of an oral tetracycline

(GRADE*: Level of evidence=moderate, Strength of recommendation=weak)

  • Padding the eye does not enhance the management of simple corneal abrasions

(GRADE*: Level of evidence=high, Strength of recommendation=strong)

Management category

B2: alleviation/palliation, normally no referral

If persistent, defect large and unstable or fails to respond to medical therapy:

B1: possible prescription of drugs; routine referral

Possible management in secondary care or local primary/community pathways where available

Additional guidance may be available

For those not responding to medical therapy a variety of interventions are used, either alone or in combination, although there is poor quality evidence to support their effectiveness:

  • débridement of loose epithelium
  • excimer laser photo-therapeutic keratectomy
  • anterior stromal puncture
  • YAG laser stromal micropuncture
  • alcohol delamination
  • diamond burr polishing of Bowman’s membrane

Evidence base

*GRADE: Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation (

Sources of evidence

Diez-Feijóo E, Grau AE, Abusleme EI, Durán JA. Clinical presentation and causes of recurrent corneal erosion syndrome: review of 100 patients. Cornea. 2014;33:571-5

Lim CH, Turner A, Lim BX. Patching for corneal abrasion. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016;7:CD004764

Lin SR, Aldave AJ, Chodosh J. Recurrent corneal erosion syndrome. Br J Ophthalmol. 2019;103(9):1204-1208.

Mencucci R, Favuzza E. Management of recurrent corneal erosions: are we getting better? Br J Ophthalmol. 2014;98:150-1

Miller DD, Hasan SA, Simmons NL, Stewart MW. Recurrent corneal erosion: a comprehensive review. Clin Ophthalmol. 2019;13:325-335

Watson SL, Leung V. Interventions for recurrent corneal erosions. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018;7:CD001861


What is Recurrent Corneal Epithelial Erosion syndrome?

In this condition the surface skin of the cornea (the clear window of the eye) breaks down, causing sharp pain, watering and sometimes blurred vision. This may happen as the patient wakes after sleep. It may be due to a previous mild injury (corneal abrasion) or to a condition known as a dystrophy in which the surface of the cornea is unusually delicate. The condition may recur over weeks or months. 

How is Recurrent Corneal Epithelial Erosion Syndrome managed?

It is treated by reducing friction between the eye and the eyelids, using lubricating drops and/or ointments, to encourage complete healing of the eye surface. Sometimes other measures are needed, for example a special contact lens applied as a bandage, minor surgery or laser therapy.

Recurrent corneal epithelial erosion syndrome
Version 13
Date of search 24.08.22
Date of revision 24.11.22
Date of publication 20.12.22
Date for review 23.08.24
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