Exudative Retinal Detachment

Updated: Jul 22, 2022
Author: Lihteh Wu, MD; Chief Editor: Inci Irak Dersu, MD, MPH 



Any time subretinal fluid accumulates in the space between the neurosensory retina and the underlying retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), a retinal detachment occurs. Depending on the mechanism of subretinal fluid accumulation, retinal detachments traditionally have been classified into rhegmatogenous, tractional, and exudative.[1]

Clinically, rhegmatogenous retinal detachments manifest corrugations, undulate, and have a retinal surface that moves with eye movements; a retinal tear(s) is present. Tractional retinal detachments are characterized by a concave shape. In contrast, exudative retinal detachments assume a convex configuration and have no retinal breaks. Shifting subretinal fluid often is found.[1]





Under normal conditions, water flows from the vitreous cavity to the choroid. The direction of flow is influenced by the relative hyperosmolarity of the choroid with respect to the vitreous, and the RPE that actively pumps ions and water from the vitreous into the choroid. When there is an increase in the inflow of fluid or a decrease in the outflow of fluid from the vitreous cavity that overwhelms the normal compensatory mechanisms, fluid accumulates in the subretinal space leading to an exudative retinal detachment.[1]

The composition of the choroidal interstitial fluid plays a fundamental role in the pathogenesis of an exudative retinal detachment. The composition of the choroidal interstitial fluid in turn is influenced by the degree of choroidal vascular permeability. Any pathologic process that affects choroidal vascular permeability can potentially cause an exudative retinal detachment. Alternatively, damage to the RPE prevents the pumping action of fluid and can lead to fluid accumulation in the subretinal space. Several inflammatory, infectious, vascular, degenerative, malignant, or genetically determined pathologic conditions have been recognized to cause exudative retinal detachments.[1]

In preeclampsia, there is intense vasoconstriction of the choroidal arterioles, which leads to choroidal ischemia and RPE infarction. The outer blood-retinal barrier is broken down and causes increased vascular permeability.

Eyes with Coats disease exhibit vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and VEGF receptors. Nine enucleated eyes with Coats disease were analyzed, and immunoreactivity for VEGF and vascular endothelial growth factor receptor 2 (VEGFR-2) was detected in macrophages and endothelia of abnormal vessels.[2]



United States

Given the diverse nature of the underlying causes of exudative retinal detachments, no reports are available on the frequency of this condition.


Mortality and morbidity depend on the underlying cause. For instance, a patient with an exudative retinal detachment from scleritis secondary to rheumatoid arthritis has a severe condition. Compare this to a healthy patient who underwent scleral buckling surgery with an exudative retinal detachment. The outlooks are very different in each case.

Exudative retinal detachment secondary to preeclampsia usually resolves without long-term complications. After delivery, the subretinal fluid is absorbed by the RPE pump and the visual acuity returns to pre-detachment levels in a few weeks. However, patients with severe eclampsia may experience permanent visual loss secondary to extensive RPE necrosis even when the retinal detachment resolves.


Racial predilection depends on the underlying cause, to include the following:

  • Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada syndrome appears to be more common in Asians and Hispanics than in Whites.
  • Choroidal melanoma is more common in Whites than in other races.
  • Exudative age-related macular degeneration is more common in Whites than in other races.
  • In patients with ocular inflammatory disease, Blacks had a higher incidence and prevalence of exudative retinal detachment. [3]


Sex predilection depends on the underlying cause, to include the following:

  • Coats disease is more common in males than in females.
  • The uveal effusion syndrome is more common in males than in females.
  • Idiopathic central serous chorioretinopathy occurs more commonly in men than in women.


Age predilection depends on the underlying cause, to include the following:

  • Coats disease is more common in children and young adults.
  • Exudative age-related macular degeneration is a condition of elderly persons.
  • Idiopathic central serous retinopathy occurs most often in middle-aged people.


The prognosis will depend on the underlying condition.




Patients may complain of a red eye (eg, uveitic pathologies).

Patients may notice a decrease in vision or a visual field defect.

Pain may be present (eg, scleritis).

Parents may notice a white pupil (leukocoria).[1]


Bullous retinal detachment with shifting subretinal fluid: Depending on the position of the patient, the fluid accumulates in its most dependent position.

The retina is characterized by a smooth surface that lacks folds as seen in a rhegmatogenous retinal detachment (RRD).

The anterior segment may show signs of inflammation (eg, episcleral injection, iridocyclitis) or even rubeosis depending on the underlying cause.

In chronic cases, deposition of hard exudates may be seen.

Dilated telangiectatic vessels may be seen.

The images below show exudative retinal detachment in a patient with Coats disease.

An 8-year-old boy with Coats disease. Notice the m An 8-year-old boy with Coats disease. Notice the macular exudation.
An 8-year-old boy with Coats disease. Notice the p An 8-year-old boy with Coats disease. Notice the peripheral vascular dilatations. This patient underwent cryotherapy months before, and the exudative retinal detachment has basically disappeared.


An extensive list of conditions that cause exudative retinal detachments exists. The conditions have been classified according to similar pathogenic mechanisms.


Idiopathic causes are as follows:

  • Coats disease

  • Central serous chorioretinopathy

  • Uveal effusion syndrome


A 2020 multicenter retrospective study from the United States found that 1.2% (176/14,612) of eyes with ocular inflammation seen from 1978-2007 presented with an exudative retinal detachment. The most common causes included Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada syndrome, undifferentiated choroiditis, sympathetic ophthalmia, primary or secondary panuveitis, multifocal choroiditis with panuveitis, and other causes of posterior uveitis.[3]

Inflammatory causes are as follows:

  • Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada syndrome

  • Orbital pseudotumor

  • Lymphomatoid granulomatosis

  • Scleritis

  • Sympathetic ophthalmia

  • Collagen vascular diseases

  • Wegener's granulomatosis

  • Sarcoidosis

  • Inflammatory bowel disease


Infectious causes are as follows:

  • Syphilis

  • Toxoplasmosis

  • Cytomegalovirus [CMV] retinitis

  • Dengue fever

  • Tuberculosis[4]

  • Lyme disease

  • Catscratch disease


Congenital causes are as follows:

  • Nanophthalmos

  • Colobomas of the optic nerve

  • Familial exudative vitreoretinopathy


The following tumors may result in exudative retinal detachment:

  • Choroidal melanoma

  • Choroidal metastases

  • Choroidal nevus

  • Choroidal hemangioma

  • Retinoblastoma

  • Primary intraocular lymphoma

  • Choroidal osteoma[5]

  • Leukemias[6, 7]

Renal diseases

The following renal diseases may result in exudative retinal detachment:

  • Lupus nephritis

  • Crescentic membranous nephropathy

  • Goodpasture syndrome

  • Patients on hemodialysis

  • IgA nephropathy

  • Type II membrane proliferative glomerulonephritis

  • Chronic renal failure


Iatrogenic causes are as follows:

  • Excessive panphotocoagulation[8]

  • Scleral buckling

Systemic disorders that induce an occlusive vascular choroidal disorder

Such systemic disorders are as follows:

  • Pregnancy-induced hypertension (eclampsia/preeclampsia)[9]

  • Malignant hypertension[10]

  • Collagen vascular diseases

  • Disseminated intravascular coagulopathy



Diagnostic Considerations

Rhegmatogenous and tractional retinal detachments need to be ruled out.[1]

Exudative retinal detachments may be caused by inflammatory, infectious, neoplastic, and other miscellaneous conditions. Inflammatory conditions include Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada (VKH) syndrome, scleritis, intermediate uveitis, and sympathetic ophthalmia among others. Infectious conditions include syphilis, tuberculosis, toxoplasmosis, and fungal infections among others. Neoplastic conditions include choroidal hemangioma, uveal melanoma, retinal vasoproliferative tumors, choroidal metastasis, and choroidal osteomas among others. Miscellaneous conditions that can cause an exudative retinal detachment include age-related macular degeneration, central serous chorioretinopathy, optic pits, uveal effusion syndrome, retinpathy of prematurity, and familial exudative vitreoretinopathy among others.


Differential Diagnoses



Laboratory Studies

Although the diagnosis of an exudative retinal detachment usually can be made clinically, the underlying etiology may be difficult to elucidate. Laboratory examinations under these circumstances are warranted, as follows:

  • Venereal Disease Research Laboratory (VDRL) test and fluorescein treponema antibody (FTA) test

  • Antineutrophil cytoplasmic antibodies

  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate

  • Rheumatoid factor

Imaging Studies

Ultrasound is a useful adjunct when the media is hazy. It can detect choroidal thickness, the presence or absence of choroidal masses, the size and location of choroidal masses, and scleral thickness. Peripheral annular choroidal detachments are seen in nanophthalmos and uveal effusion syndrome.

Fluorescein angiography is a useful adjunct to identify areas of leakage in central serous chorioretinopathy, Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada syndrome, and Coats disease.[11] Ultra–wide-field fluorescein angiography is used to identify areas of peripheral retinal nonperfusion, allowing guidance of treatment.[12]

Optical coherence tomography (OCT) can be used for quantitative examination.

Histologic Findings

The histopathologic findings are similar to those of a RRD with loss of photoreceptor outer segments acutely and chronic changes exemplified by retinoschisis, cysts, and RPE proliferation. Other findings include massive leakage into the retina and subretinal space.

In the acute uveitic phase of Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada syndrome, an eosinophilic exudate containing proteinaceous material is found in the subretinal space that usually is not present in the convalescent and chronic recurrent phases of the disease.[13]

Biochemical analysis of subretinal fluid in Coats disease reveals high levels of protein, albumin, and cholesterol in combination with nearly normal levels of other biochemical components suggesting entrapment of larger molecules in the subretinal space with equilibrium of smaller molecules, probably by active transport of the RPE.



Medical Care

The medical and surgical treatments of exudative retinal detachments must be tailored to the underlying condition.

Inflammatory conditions, such as scleritis and Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada syndrome, should be treated with anti-inflammatory agents.[14]

Tumors need to be treated accordingly. External beam radiation therapy or brachytherapy with a plaque may be used for choroidal melanoma. Metastatic lesions respond to chemotherapy or localized radiation therapy. Choroidal hemangiomas may respond to laser photocoagulation or plaque brachytherapy. Retinoblastomas may be shrunk with chemotherapy and then treated locally with heat, laser, or cryotherapy.

Infectious etiologies may respond to antibiotics.

Reports exist of patients with exudative retinal detachments secondary to chronic renal failure that have spontaneous retinal reattachment following renal transplant or renal dialysis.[15]

Anti-VEGF agents may play a role in the management of Coats disease.[2, 16, 17]

Surgical Care

The medical and surgical treatments of exudative retinal detachments have to be tailored to the underlying condition.

Conditions with vascular anomalies, such as Coats disease, should be treated with laser or cryotherapy to obliterate the vascular abnormalities. If an exudative retinal detachment is present, surgical techniques such as drainage with or without vitrectomy have been recommended.[18] A retrospective case review of 8 eyes in 8 children with total or subtotal retinal detachment due to Coats disease demonstrated that transscleral drainage of subretinal fluid accompanied by anti-VEGF injection and laser photocoagulation appears to be successful in halting progression of advanced Coats disease with exudative detachment and is less invasive than conventional management.[19]

In nanophthalmos where the sclera is abnormally thick, vortex vein decompression with scleral windows and suprachoroidal fluid drainage is indicated.

Congenital anomalies, such as optic pits or colobomas, may respond to vitrectomy and endolaser techniques.

Central serous chorioretinopathy may respond to mild laser treatment of the focal areas that leak on fluorescein angiogram. Photodynamic therapy and micropulse laser have been used in cases of central serous chorioretinopathy that involve the fovea.[20]


Consult a vitreoretinal specialist early in the disease process. If immunosuppressive therapy is being considered, consultation with an immunologist or rheumatologist is highly recommended.



Further Inpatient Care

Most ophthalmic care is rendered in an outpatient facility. For the most part, even surgical cases are treated in an ambulatory setting.


Potential complications include the following:

  • Neovascular glaucoma

  • Phthisis bulbi


Prognosis depends on the underlying condition.

In a series of 43 patients with Coats disease, 75% of treated patients had an improvement or stabilization of vision from baseline. Only 30% of untreated patients had a stable visual acuity.[21]

The long-term prognosis in optic pits probably is poor because of secondary cystoid macular changes.[22]

Idiopathic central serous chorioretinopathy is not as benign as previously thought. As many as 15% of patients may end up with a visual acuity of 20/200 or worse.[23]

Exudative retinal detachments secondary to preeclampsia or eclampsia usually resolve without sequelae. 

In eyes with ocular inflammation, the severity of intraocular inflammation is a predictive factor in the development of an exudative retinal detachment.[3]


Questions & Answers


What is exudative retinal detachment?

What is the pathophysiology of exudative retinal detachment?

What is the prevalence of exudative retinal detachment in the US?

What is the morbidity associated with exudative retinal detachment?

What are the racial predilections of exudative retinal detachment?

What are the sexual predilections of exudative retinal detachment?

Which age groups have the highest prevalence of exudative retinal detachment?


Which clinical history findings are characteristic of exudative retinal detachment?

Which physical findings are characteristic of exudative retinal detachment?

What are the idiopathic causes of exudative retinal detachment?

What are the inflammatory causes of exudative retinal detachment?

What are the infectious causes of exudative retinal detachment?

What are the congenital causes of exudative retinal detachment?

Which tumors may cause exudative retinal detachment?

What are the renal causes of exudative retinal detachment?

What are the iatrogenic causes of exudative retinal detachment?

Which systemic disorders may cause exudative retinal detachment?


What are the differential diagnoses for Exudative Retinal Detachment?


What is the role of lab testing in the workup of exudative retinal detachment?

What is the role of imaging studies in the diagnosis of exudative retinal detachment?

Which histologic findings are characteristic of exudative retinal detachment?


How is exudative retinal detachment treated?

What is the role of surgery in the treatment of exudative retinal detachment?

Which specialist consultations are beneficial to patients with exudative retinal detachment?


When is inpatient care indicated in the treatment of exudative retinal detachment?

What are the possible complications of exudative retinal detachment?

What is the prognosis of exudative retinal detachment?