What is conjunctivitis?
Conjunctivitis is one of the most common and treatable eye infections in children and adults. Often called "pink eye," it is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the tissue that lines the inside of the eyelid. This tissue helps keep the eyelid and eyeball moist.
Conjunctivitis can be caused by a virus, bacteria, irritating substances (shampoos, dirt, smoke and especially pool chlorine), allergens (substances that cause allergies) or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Types of pink eye caused by bacteria, viruses and STDs can spread easily from person to person, but are not a serious health risks if diagnosed promptly.
What are the symptoms of conjunctivitis?
- Redness in the white of the eye or inner eyelid
- Increased amount of tears
- Thick yellow discharge that crusts over the eyelashes, especially after sleep (with conjunctivitis caused by bacteria)
- Other discharge from your eye (green or white)
- Itchy eyes (especially with conjunctivitis caused by allergies)
- Burning eyes (especially with conjunctivitis caused by chemicals and irritants)
- Blurred vision
- Increased sensitivity to light
See your ophthalmologist (a doctor trained to treat eye conditions) or family doctor if you have any of these persistent symptoms. Ear infections also commonly occur in children who have bacterial conjunctivitis. He or she will conduct an exam of your eyes and possibly take a sample of fluid from the eyelid using a cotton swab. Bacteria or viruses that may have caused conjunctivitis, including STDs, can then be seen through a microscope.
How is conjunctivitis treated?
Conjunctivitis caused by bacteria is treated with antibiotics, a type of medicine prescribed by your doctor. The antibiotic can be given as eye drops, ointments or pills. Eye drops or ointments may need to be applied to the inside of the eyelid three to four times a day for five to seven days. It may be difficult to apply ointments inside of a child’s eye. If the ointment gets as far as the eyelashes, it will most likely melt and enter the eye. Pills may need to be taken for several days. The infection should improve within a week. Take the medicine as instructed by your doctor, even if the symptoms go away.
Medicine cannot treat conjunctivitis caused by a virus. This type of conjunctivitis often results from a common cold. Just as a cold must run its course, so must this form of conjunctivitis, lasting from 4 to 7 days. You may, however, help relieve symptoms by applying a cold compress.
To treat this type of conjunctivitis, use warm water to wash the irritating substance from the eye for five minutes. You should also avoid further exposure to irritating substances. Your eyes should begin to improve within four hours after washing away the substance, otherwise call your doctor.
Allergy-associated conjunctivitis should be evaluated by you ophthalmologist and an allergist. It may disappear completely when the allergy is either treated with antihistamines or the allergen is removed. Relieve symptoms temporarily by applying a cold compress closed eyes.
What can I do to help relieve symptoms?
- Protect your eyes from dirt and other irritating substances.
- Remove contact lenses, if you wear them.
- Place cold compresses on the eyes.
- Wash your face and eyelids with mild soap or baby shampoo and rinse with water to remove irritating substances.
Non-prescription "artificial tears," a type of eye drops, may help relieve itching and burning from irritating substances. (Note: Other types of eye drops may irritate the eyes and should not be used.) Do not use the same bottle of drops in the other eye if it is not infected.
How can I prevent spreading the infection?
- Don’t touch or rub the infected eye(s).
- Wash your hands often with soap and warm water.
- Wash any discharge from your eyes twice a day using a fresh cotton ball or paper towel. Afterwards, discard the cotton ball and wash your hands with soap and warm water.
- Wash your bed linens, pillowcases and towels in hot water and detergent.
- Avoid wearing eye makeup.
- Don’t share eye makeup with anyone else.
- Never wear another person’s contact lens.
- Wear glasses instead of contact lenses. Throw away disposable lenses or be sure to clean extended wear lenses and all eyewear cases.
- Avoid sharing common articles such as unwashed towels, cups and glasses.
- Wash your hands after applying the eye drops or ointment to your eye or your child’s eye.
- Do not use eye drops in a non-infected eye that were used for an infected one.
If your child has bacterial or viral conjunctivitis, keep your child home from school or day care until he or she is no longer contagious.