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What is conjunctivitis?

Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the thin, clear membrane (conjunctiva) that covers the white of the eye and the inside surface of the eyelids. Conjunctivitis, commonly known as “pink eye,” is most often caused by a virus but also can be caused by bacterial infection, allergies (e.g., cosmetics, pollen) and chemical irritation.

How is it spread?

Anyone can get conjunctivitis. It can spread fairly easily from person to person, especially in dormitories, schools or other places where large numbers of persons congregate. People commonly get conjunctivitis by coming into contact with the tears or other eye discharges of an infected person, and then touching their own eyes. Hands, towels and washcloths can spread conjunctivitis. Symptoms normally appear a few days after contact with an infected person or an object contaminated with the virus (such as a towel).

Individuals with conjunctivitis may be contagious as long as symptoms persist or the eye appears abnormal. Risk of conjunctivitis increases with use of contact lenses, and touching/rubbing the eyes without handwashing first.

What are the symptoms of conjunctivitis?

Symptoms of conjunctivitis may include the following:

  • Eye redness and irritation
  • Sensitivity to bright light
  • Itchiness or a gritty sensation in the eye
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Tearing and discharge (Discharge may make the eyelids and eyelashes stick together or have crusty debris, especially in the morning.)

Viral conjunctivitis often begins with fairly sudden onset of pain or the feeling of dust in the eye. Infection may begin in only one eye but often spreads to involve both.

Should I contact a doctor if I develop symptoms of conjunctivitis?

You should contact your health care provider –

  • if you have symptoms of conjunctivitis and they do not improve in 24-48 hours;
  • if you have conjunctivitis and wear contact lenses;
  • if you have vision problems or significant eye pain; or
  • if you develop fever.

Other concerns, including the duration of your conjunctivitis symptoms, whether or not your symptoms are improving as expected, etc., should also be shared with your health care provider.

How is conjunctivitis treated?

Treatment varies with the cause. There is no curative treatment for common viral conjunctivitis; it usually will go away by itself in one to six weeks. Lubricating eye drops sometimes help to ease symptoms. (Do not share these eye drops with other persons.) If symptoms last for more than 24-48 hours, or vision is affected, it is important to be seen by a health care practitioner. Other kinds of conjunctivitis often have specific treatments that may be prescribed.

A person with conjunctivitis should follow these general guidelines:

  • If medication has been prescribed, use exactly as directed for the full course of treatment. (All treatments used for conjunctivitis should be thrown away when no longer needed.)
  • Be sure to wash hands with soap and water before and after using eye medication.
  • Wash hands frequently during waking hours with soap and water (15 seconds), and use paper towels or blow dry.
  • Avoid touching your eyes. Gently wipe discharge from the eye using disposable tissues.
  • Use warm or cool water compresses to reduce discomfort.
  • Do not use eye makeup. Discard eye makeup if used when conjunctivitis was present because organisms may remain in makeup and cause a reoccurrence.

Should contact lens wearers take special precautions?

  • Disinfect lenses, also clean and disinfect storage case.
  • Do not use eye drops or ointment with the lens in place.
  • Do not wear contact lenses until eyes are entirely clear of conjunctivitis.
  • If using disposable lenses, discard; after infection clears, use new lenses.

Can conjunctivitis be prevented?

Conjunctivitis can be prevented by practicing good hygiene.

  • Wash hands frequently with soap and water.
  • Use clean paper towels to dry hands.
  • Avoid touching the hands of others or rubbing the eyes.
  • Avoid exposure to eye irritants such as perfumes and smoke.
  • Throw away or machine wash towels, tissues and other items that touch the eyes after each use.
  • Avoid sharing towels and wash cloths.
  • Avoid sharing eye drops, eye makeup, contact lens solution, tissues and other items used on the face.