Vernal Keratoconjunctivitis (Spring catarrh)

The CMGs are guidelines on the diagnosis and management of a range of common and rare, but important, eye conditions that present with varying frequency in primary and first contact care.

Share options

Vernal Keratoconjunctivitis







Please login to view the images or join the College today.


Rare allergic disorder of children (prevalence in Western Europe is 3.2 per 100,000 inhabitants)
More common in some other parts of the world, e.g. Mediterranean region, parts of Africa, Indian sub-continent
Complex immune reaction with raised IgE levels in the tears and serum, and mast cells and eosinophils in the conjunctival epithelium

Predisposing factors

Onset usually before 10 years of age; M:F = 3-4:1
Seasonal exacerbations (hence name) but condition may be active year-round if severe
Patients usually atopic with a history of eczema and asthma
Often a family history of atopic disease


  • ocular itching
  • watering
  • mucoid stringy discharge
  • blurred vision
  • photophobia
  • difficulty opening eyes on waking

NB: the symptoms are often asymmetrical in the two eyes


Stringy white mucous exudate
Palpebral, limbal and corneal manifestations:


  • hyperaemia and chemosis of conjunctiva when active
  • giant papillary hypertrophy (papillae 1mm or greater in diameter) of upper tarsus (‘cobblestone’ appearance)


  • hyperaemic, oedematous, thickened limbus
  • Trantas’s Dots (discrete white superficial accumulations of eosinophils and degenerating epithelial cells)

Corneal (usually in upper third)

  • punctate epithelial keratopathy
  • macro-erosion (coalescent epithelial loss)
  • plaque (deposited on Bowman’s layer, preventing re-epithelialisation); ‘shield ulcer’ in US terminology
  • subepithelial scarring (often ring-shaped)

NB: the signs are often asymmetrical in the two eyes These patients may also have keratoconus and/or atopic cataract

Differential diagnosis

Atopic keratoconjunctivitis (usually in adults; around puberty, VKC may metamorphose into this disease)

Management by optometrist

Practitioners should recognise their limitations and where necessary seek further advice or refer the patient elsewhere

GRADE* Level of evidence and strength of recommendation always relates to the statement(s) immediately above

Non pharmacological

Cold compresses may reduce acute symptoms
(GRADE*: Level of evidence=low, Strength of recommendation=strong)


Mast cell stabilisers e.g. gutt sodium cromoglicate 2% qds, gutt lodoxamide 0.1% qds
Because of the sight-threatening nature of this condition, and the frequent need for other medical specialist involvement, maintain low threshold for referral to the Ophthalmologist
(GRADE*: Level of evidence=moderate, Strength of recommendation=strong)

Management category

If there is active limbal or corneal involvement:
A3: first aid measures followed by urgent referral (within one week) to an ophthalmologist

Milder cases (without active limbal or corneal involvement):
B1: possible prescription of drugs; routine referral

Initial management followed by routine referral if mast cell stabilizers fail to provide symptomatic relief. Consider co-management with ophthalmologist. VKC requires careful monitoring for sight-threatening complications

Possible management by ophthalmologist

Usually topical steroid. Other topical drugs used include immunosuppressants (e.g. ciclosporin) and mucolytics (acetyl cysteine)
Manual or laser surgery may be required for the removal of corneal plaque

Evidence base

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

Sources of evidence

Avunduk AM, Avunduk MC, Kapicioglu Z, Akyol N, Tavli L. Mechanisms and comparison of anti-allergic efficacy of topical lodoxamide and cromolyn sodium treatment in vernal keratoconjunctivitis. Ophthalmology. 2000;107:1333-7

De Smedt S, Nkurikiye J, Fonteyne Y, Tuft S, De Bacquer D, Gilbert C, Kestelyn P. Topical ciclosporin in the treatment of vernal keratoconjunctivitis in Rwanda, Central Africa: a prospective, randomised, double-masked, controlled clinical trial. Br J Ophthalmol. 2012;96:323-8

Kumar S. Vernal keratoconjunctivitis: a major review. Acta Ophthalmol. 2009;87:133-47

Mantelli F, Santos MS, Petitti T et al: Systematic review and meta- analysis of randomised clinical trials on topical treatments for vernal keratoconjunctivitis. Br J Ophthalmol. 2007;91:1656-61

Vichyanond P, Pacharn P, Pleyer U, Leonardi A. Vernal keratoconjunctivitis: a severe allergic eye disease with remodeling changes. Pediatr Allergy Immunol. 2014;25(4):314-22

Lay summary

Vernal Keratoconjunctivitis (VKC), also known as Spring Catarrh, is a rare but serious allergic disease affecting the eyes of young children, especially boys. It usually begins before the age of 10 years and often disappears at puberty, though it may change at that time into another allergic eye disease known as Atopic Keratoconjunctivitis.

Children with VKC complain of itching of the eyes, watering and a stringy discharge. Their vision may be blurred and they may be excessively sensitive to light. One characteristic symptom is that they may have great difficulty in opening their eyes on awaking, and this and the very distracting effect of the condition may cause them to miss school.

VKC produces inflammation of the eye surface. On the underside of the upper eyelids, bumps shaped like tiny cobblestones appear. Substances released from this tissue can cause damage to the cornea (the clear window of the eye). Sometimes a whitish deposit, known as plaque, may accumulate on the cornea, which may also become scarred, with or without visual disturbance.

VKC is not a simple allergic condition like Seasonal Allergic Conjunctivitis as it involves various different types of immune reaction. Its treatment therefore involves drugs of a number of types, including steroids and immunosuppressants. This is why many cases need to be referred to the ophthalmologist for management. Surgery is sometimes needed when plaque has accumulated on the cornea.

Vernal Keratoconjunctivitis (Spring catarrh)
Version 12
Date of search 20.07.16
Date of revision 22.12.16
Date of publication 01.06.17
Date for review 19.07.18
© College of Optometrists 

View more Clinical Management Guidelines