Conjunctivitis, also known as pinkeye, is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the thin clear tissue that lies over the white part of the eye and lines the inside of the eyelid.

What Causes Conjunctivitis?

Conjunctivitis has a number of different causes, including:

  • Viruses
  • Bacteria
  • Irritants such as shampoos, smoke, and pool chlorine
  • Allergies, like dust, pollen, or an allergy that affects some contact lens wearers

Conjunctivitis caused by some bacteria and viruses can spread easily from person to person, but is not a serious health risk if diagnosed promptly. Conjunctivitis in newborn babies, however, should be reported to a doctor immediately.

What Are the Symptoms of Conjunctivitis?

The symptoms differ based on the cause of the inflammation, but may include:

  • Redness in the white of the eye or inner eyelid
  • Increased tears
  • Thick yellow discharge that crusts over the eyelashes, especially after sleep
  • Green or white discharge
  • Itchy or burning eyes
  • Increased sensitivity to light

If you have any of these symptoms, see your optometrist, who will conduct an examination of your eyes and may use a cotton swab to take a sample of fluid from the eyelid to be analyzed in a lab. Bacteria or viruses that may have caused conjunctivitis can then be identified and proper treatment prescribed.

How Is Conjunctivitis Treated?

The treatment for conjunctivitis depends on the cause.

  • Bacteria: Conjunctivitis caused by bacteria is treated with antibiotics, in the form of eye drops, ointments, or pills. The infection should improve within a week. Take or use the treatment as instructed by your professional, even if the symptoms go away.
  • Viruses: This type of conjunctivitis often results from the viruses that cause a common cold. Just as a cold must run its course, so must this form of conjunctivitis, which usually lasts from four to seven days. Viral conjunctivitis can be highly contagious.
  • Irritants: For conjunctivitis caused by an irritating substance, use water to wash the substance from the eye. Your eyes should begin to improve within a few hours.
  • Allergies: Antihistamine eye drops are very effective for occasional outbreaks. However, recurring allergy-associated conjunctivitis should be investigated more fully.

How Can I Prevent Spreading Conjunctivitis?

If you or your child has conjunctivitis:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water.
  • Wash any discharge from your eyes several times a day using a fresh cotton ball or paper towel. Afterwards, discard the cotton ball or paper towel and wash your hands with soap and warm water.
  • Wash your pillowcases and towels in hot water and detergent.
  • Avoid wearing eye makeup.
  • Don't share eye makeup with anyone.
  • Never wear another person's contact lenses.
  • Wear glasses instead of contact lenses. Throw away disposable lenses or be sure to clean extended wear lenses and all eyewear cases.
  • Wash your hands after applying eye drops or ointment.
  • Do not use eye drops that were used for an infected eye in a non-infected eye.
  • If your child has bacterial or viral conjunctivitis, keep your child home from school until he or she is no longer contagious.

How Can I Avoid Getting Conjunctivitis?

Viral conjunctivitis is highly contagious. However, maintaining proper hygiene such as frequent hand washing should minimize transmission. Avoid touching your face since the virus can enter the eyes, nose, and mouth.

With allergic conjunctivitis, avoiding allergens and taking proper care of your contact lenses can help reduce your risk. If someone in your household has conjunctivitis, be sure to wash hands often and thoroughly. Avoid sharing washcloths, towels, pillowcases, or make-up with the person.

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