Conjunctivitis. Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Conjunctivitis, also known as “Pink Eye,” is a common eye complaint in adults and children. This disorder is an infection or inflammation of the conjunctiva of the eye and can result from several causes. Conjunctivitis can occur in one or both eyes and is quite contagious. Treatment options vary.

What causes Conjunctivitis?

Conjunctivitis is typically caused by a virus, such as the common cold, an upper airway infection, or bacteria that gets into the eye; however, there are several other causes that can contribute as well:

  • Allergens - pollen, dust, mold, etc.
  • Irritants - chemicals, smoke, etc.
  • Sexually transmitted infections - gonorrhea or chlamydia
  • Herpes Viruses
  • Foreign body in the eye
  • Clogged tear duct(s)

One or more of the above problems leads to inflammation of the blood vessels in the conjunctiva of the eye. The conjunctiva is a very thin, clear covering on the inside of the eyelid and the eye that protects the eye and keeps it wet. When inflamed, this membrane appears red or pink and is easily seen.

Symptoms of Conjunctivitis

The cause of this infection results in:

  • Redness in one or both eyes
  • Itchiness in the affected eye
  • Burning or irritation
  • Drainage in the affected eye results in crusting that may be thick yellow, white, or green
  • Watery eye
  • Swelling of the eyelids
  • Gritty feeling or a feeling like something is in the eye
  • Blurred vision
  • Sensitivity to light

People often complain that the drainage causes crusting, that the eyelids stick together, and that they are not able to open their eyes after sleep. Conjunctivitis in one or both eyes remains contagious until symptoms disappear.

Who can get Conjunctivitis?

Conjunctivitis affects people of all ages, genders, and races. This disease is quite common among children as it spreads easily and can be hard to control because children do not understand how easily this infection can be contracted. In addition, children are also less likely to practice good hand hygiene.

Diagnosing Conjunctivitis

Your healthcare provider can diagnose conjunctivitis based on symptoms and a physical exam. Testing is rarely needed. Your provider may take a sample of the drainage that is suspected to be related to a sexually transmitted infection or another risky bacterium.

Treatment for Conjunctivitis

Treatment largely depends on the cause of conjunctivitis. Your healthcare provider will begin by recommending treatment for your symptoms in order to provide comfort and relief. Recommendations will include the following suggestions:

  • Frequent washing of the affected eyes with clean, warm, wet cloths
  • Applying warm, wet compresses to the infected area(s)
  • Use saline solution or artificial tears to keep the eyes moist

Treatment will also depend on which type of conjunctivitis you have and the accompanying symptoms. Conjunctivitis is usually self-limiting, meaning it will go away on its own once it has run its course. Antibiotics are not generally needed because viruses do not respond to this type of medication. This news is often disappointing to hear because Conjunctivitis is uncomfortable and can take as long as two to three weeks for the virus to resolve.

Conjunctivitis forms

Viral Conjunctivitis. Conjunctivitis is most commonly caused by a virus. Treatments should focus on easing the symptoms until the virus has passed.

Allergic Conjunctivitis. Your healthcare provider may prescribe eye drops or recommend antihistamines to reduce inflammation and soothe the symptoms if it is allergy related. Also, avoid the trigger that causes symptoms.

Bacterial Conjunctivitis. Bacterial conjunctivitis is also self-limiting, though your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotic drops or ointment for treatment. Treating the symptoms as explained above though, is still the primary plan of care. Antibiotics may decrease the length of the infection, but research shows this medication does not provide a substantial difference over letting conjunctivitis run its course. Again, please be aware that some healthcare providers may not prescribe antibiotics for it and that is acceptable treatment as well.

Herpes Zoster Conjunctivitis. This form of conjunctivitis requires more aggressive treatment. It develops with a rash on the face or head that results from shingles and can lead to vision problems or blindness if not treated. These symptoms are contagious, and the rash may last up to two to four weeks. Your healthcare provider will prescribe antiviral medications to treat herpes zoster virus, and likely medications to treat the associated nerve pain. You could also experience other symptoms including, headache, fever, watery eye, itching, sensitivity to light, and fatigue.

Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). Conjunctivitis caused by STIs should be treated by your healthcare provider. Antibiotics are needed to resolve these infections along with proper hygiene and symptom relief. Be aware these infections can be passed to newborns during childbirth and treatment is needed.

Prevent Conjunctivitis

Preventing conjunctivitis is more about avoiding those people who are infected, as well as all surfaces they have come in contact with. To avoid contracting Conjunctivitis follow these steps:

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water often
  • Do not touch your eyes or face.
  • Do not use makeup or cosmetics and dispose of any that may have been contaminated up to 24 to 48 hours prior to symptoms starting
  • Do not wear your contact lenses until you have finished treatment. If you were wearing the contacts when the symptoms began or up to two days before, you should discard disposable contacts. If you use hard lenses, sanitize them overnight before using them again
  • Thoroughly wash towels, washcloths, pillowcases, or other linens that come in contact with the eyes, and do not reuse them
  • Disinfect all commonly touched surfaces frequently such as doorknobs, television remotes, phones, toys, computers, etc.

Keep in mind

Conjunctivitis is contagious and spreads easily when caused by bacteria or viruses. Viruses can be spread even before symptoms appear. Conjunctivitis related to allergies, irritants, or foreign bodies is not contagious.

Conjunctivitis is spread by touching other people or surfaces infected with the virus or bacteria. If people who are diagnosed with conjunctivitis touch their face and then touch another person’s hands, or commonly touched surfaces, there is a high risk of spreading. It is very important to wash your hands well and often, as well as clean any commonly touched surfaces. This is particularly true in children, as they do not understand the importance of good hygiene or how easily Conjunctivitis spreads.

Do not go to work or school until your symptoms clear up and you are no longer contagious. Your healthcare provider can advise you on how long healing will take, depending on the type you have, and whether you are being treated with antibiotics or medications. If prescribed antibiotics, you will be less likely to be contagious after 24 hours of taking this medication.


Cleveland Clinic. Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis)

Mayo Clinic. Pink eye (Conjunctivitis)

American Academy of Ophthalmology. Pink eye (Conjunctivitis)

National Library of Medicine. Conjunctivitis

Cleveland Clinic. Herpetic Eye Disease

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