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 the conjunctiva.
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There are many causes of conjunctivitis including:
- Viral infection
- Bacterial infection
- Allergic reaction, usually related to seasonal allergies
Chemical irritation caused by:
- Air pollutants
- Other chemicals
Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are highly contagious.
This condition is more common in children.
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
- 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.
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. Your eyes will be examined. If there is discharge from your eye, it may be tested. The discharge will help find the cause of the conjunctivitis.
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 medication 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. Apply cool compresses to the affected area. Eye drops may be prescribed 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.
To decrease your chance of conjunctivitis:
- Do not share makeup or eye drops with anyone.
- Avoid sharing towels, washcloths, pillows, and handkerchiefs,
- Wash your hands frequently. Keep your hands away from your eyes.
- Clean contact lenses daily. Never sleep while wearing them unless advised to do so 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
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
Canadian Ophthalmological Society
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Infectious conjunctivitis. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116741/Infectious-conjunctivitis. Updated July 15, 2016. Accessed September 1, 2017.
Pinkeye (conjunctivitis). Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available at: http://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/eyes/Pages/PinkEye-Conjunctivitis.aspx. Updated November 21, 2015. Accessed September 1, 2017.
Last reviewed September 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board James Cornell, MD Last Updated: 9/15/2014