Also called "pinkeye," conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, which is the clear membrane that covers the eyeball. Symptoms in the affected eye include a bloodshot appearance, crusty discharge, and discomfort that may feel like something has gotten in the eye. Conjunctivitis is frequently caused by a viral infection, sometimes of the same viruses that cause colds. In such cases, conjunctivitis could be called "a cold in the eye" and is really no more serious than any other cold. Other causes of conjunctivitis include bacterial infections, allergies, environmental irritants such as smoke or pollution, exposure to chemicals such as chlorine or contact lens solution, or injuries to the eye.
Medical treatment varies depending on the cause of the inflammation. Common viral conjunctivitis does not require treatment—but if conjunctivitis is due to the herpes virus, urgent treatment is necessary. For bacterial eye infections, antibiotic ointment or oral antibiotics are usually prescribed; for allergic conjunctivitis, prescription eye drops and/or antihistamines may be used.
Traditionally, herbal teas have been applied to the eyes directly, or in compress or poultice form. Note: We do not recommend this method because, if absolute sterility is not assured, further serious infection may occur. Furthermore, allergic reactions to herbal products are relatively common, and may themselves cause eye irritation.
As the name indicates, eyebright is a traditional herbal treatment for eye conditions; however, this recommendation may be based more on the bloodshot appearance of its petals rather than any actual medicinal effect.
The herbs barberry, Oregon grape, and goldenseal contain berberine, a substance with antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. A special berberine preparation is used as a pharmaceutical treatment for conjunctivitis in Germany, but is not used widely elsewhere.
The herb calendula is thought to possess anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties, and has been used traditionally as an eye compress.
Chamomile tea has also traditionally been used to soothe conjunctivitis symptoms.
There is some evidence that individuals with chronic conjunctivitis may have a vitamin A deficiency.1 However, this does not prove that taking vitamin A supplements would be helpful in treating or preventing conjunctivitis.
Preliminary studies suggest bee propolis may be helpful for treating conjunctivitis. However, because it was applied topically to the eye in these trials, we do not recommend this treatment out of concerns regarding sterility.2
1. Rankov BG. Vitamin A and carotene concentrations in serum in patients with chronic conjunctivitis and pterygium [translated from German]. Int Z Vit Ern Forsch. 1976;46:454–457.
2. Popescu MP, Palos E, Popescu F. Study of the efficiency of biological therapy with honey bee products in some palpebral and conjunctival affections in terms of clinical-functional changes [in Romanian; English abstract]. Rev Chir Oncol Radiol O R L Oftalmol Stomatol Ser Oftalmol. 1985;29:53–61.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board Last Updated: 12/15/2015