Optic neuritis

Optic neuritis (ON) is an attack of inflammation (swelling) of the optic nerve. The optic nerve is important in sending information from the eye to the brain about what we are seeing. ON is caused by the body’s immune system becoming mis-programmed and activating immune cells to attack the healthy myelin covering the optic nerve.

What causes Optic neuritis (ON)?

We do not know exactly why this happens, sometimes it can follow on from a viral infection, but sometimes it can also just occur with no prior warning or trigger event.

What are the signs and symptoms of ON?

Optic neuritis can affect one or both eyes and the symptoms can include pain on moving the eye, blurred vision, loss of colour vision or even complete loss of vision.

How is it diagnosed?

Normally a specialist eye doctor will examine the eye, and also request some specific eye tests. They may refer you for some blood tests and an MRI brain scan.

How is optic neuritis treated?

Steroids are given to reduce the inflammation around the optic nerves. They can be given into a vein (infusion) for three days or sometimes given by mouth (orally). Steroids shorten the duration of the symptoms, but they do not improve the long-term outcome.

What is the prognosis for ON?

More than 80 per cent of young people start to get better soon after the initial attack and continue to recover for up to six months afterwards. Most recover fully but some people continue to have symptoms such as blurred or decreased vision.

Will my child go on to develop multiple sclerosis (MS)?

Optic neuritis, like MS, is a condition caused by the body’s immune system becoming mis-programmed and attacking the myelin covering of the nerves. Whether a child is likely to go on to develop MS depends on the initial symptoms and also on whether the brain scan shows any specific inflammatory changes. A doctor will be able to discuss this with parents, based on their child’s specific presentation and the MRI scan. They may also be asked to help in research to enable us in time to answer these questions better.

What happens next?

The child will be followed up by an eye doctor and they may, depending on the brain scan, be referred for further assessment.

Compiled by:
The Neuroimmunology Centre in collaboration with the Child and Family Information Group
Last review date:
July 2017