Conjunctivitis is swelling and irritation in the eye. It affects the tissue that covers the eye and lines the inner surface of the eyelid. This tissue is called conjunctiva.
Eye with Conjunctivitis
There are many causes of conjunctivitis including:
- Viral infection
- Bacterial infection, such as staphylococcus or streptococcus
- Allergic reaction, usually related to seasonal allergies
Chemical irritation caused by:
- Air pollutants
- Other chemicals
Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are highly contagious.
Factors that may increase your risk of conjunctivitis include:
- Contact with a person who has conjunctivitis
- Sharing towels, linens, or other objects (even doorknobs) with an infected person
- Exposure to chemical or environmental irritants
- Contact lenses , especially if contacts are not cleaned and stored properly
- Age: more common in children
- Seasonal allergies or contact with known allergens
- Red, watery eyes
- Swollen inner eyelids
- Scratchy feeling in the eyes
- Itchy eyes
- Pus-like or watery discharge
- Swelling of the eyelid
Conjunctivitis will usually clear up within 2-14 days. If conjunctivitis is caused by a seasonal allergy, it may continue throughout the season. If it is caused by a non-seasonal allergy, it may continue to occur year round.
Note: These symptoms can sometimes indicate a more serious medical problem. If you develop these or any other symptoms, see your doctor.
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. The doctor will examine your eye. If there is discharge from your eye, it may be tested. The discharge will help find the cause of the conjunctivitis.
If you wear contacts, avoid wearing contact lenses until the conjunctivitis has cleared.
Treatment will depend on the cause of the conjunctivitis:
Antibiotic eye drops and/or ointment may be prescribed. These drops will help shorten the course of the infection. It will also decrease the amount of time it is contagious. Wipe away any discharge with a clean cotton ball before using the drops.
There is no medicine to cure a viral infection. To help relieve discomfort consider:
- Applying warm compresses
- Artificial tears (found in pharmacies)
Allergic or Chemical Irritation
Avoid the cause of the irritation (eg, smoke, pollen, make-up). Apply cool compresses to the affected area. Your doctor may prescribe allergy eye drops to help relieve allergic conjunctivitis.
To Prevent Further Spread of Infection
If you have a bacterial or viral infection, follow these steps to prevent the spread of infection:
- Keep hands away from your face and do not rub your eyes.
- Change pillowcases and towels every night.
- Do not share pillows or towels.
- Wash hands frequently.
- Avoid shaking hands with others.
- Avoid swimming.
- Carefully clean away any discharge with warm water and clean cotton (or gauze) and immediately discard.
If you are diagnosed with conjunctivitis, follow your doctor's instructions .
To decrease your chance of conjunctivitis:
- Do not share makeup or eye drops with anyone else.
- Avoid sharing towels, washcloths, pillows, and handkerchiefs,
- Wash your hands frequently. Keep your hands away from your eyes.
- Clean contact lenses daily. Never sleep with them unless approved by your eye doctor.
- In case of allergic conjunctivitis, avoid the allergy causing substances and irritants.
Your doctor may recommend other prevention methods, depending on the cause.
American Optometric Association
Canadian Family Physician
Canadian Ophthalmological Society
Infectious conjunctivitis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php. Updated July 16, 2012. Accessed November 6, 2012.
Conjunctivitis. American Academy of Pediatrics Health Children website. Available at: http://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/eyes/Pages/Conjunctivitis-Pink-Eye.aspx. Updated May 26, 2011. Accessed November 6, 2012.
Viral conjunctivitis. Review of Optometry. 2001.
Last reviewed November 2012 by Brian Randall, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.