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Conjunctivitis or pink eye

Inflammation - conjunctiva; Pink eye; Chemical conjunctivitis, Pinkeye; Pink-eye; Allergic conjunctivitis

The conjunctiva is a clear layer of tissue lining the eyelids and covering the white of the eye. Conjunctivitis occurs when the conjunctiva becomes swollen or inflamed.

This swelling can be due to an infection, an irritant, dry eyes, or an allergy.

Causes

Tears most often protect the eyes by washing away the germs and irritants. Tears contain proteins and antibodies that kill germs. If your eyes are dry, germs and irritants are more likely to cause problems.

Conjunctivitis is most often caused by germs such as viruses and bacteria.

  • "Pink eye" most often refers to a highly contagious viral infection that spreads easily among children.
  • In newborns, an eye infection may be caused by bacteria in the birth canal. This must be treated at once to preserve eyesight.
  • Allergic conjunctivitis occurs when the conjunctiva becomes inflamed due to a reaction to pollen, dander, mold, or other allergy-causing substances.

A type of long-term allergic conjunctivitis may occur in people who have those with chronic allergies or asthma. This condition is called vernal conjunctivitis. It is most commonly occurs in young men and boys in the spring and summer months. A similar condition can occur in long-time contact lens wearers. It may make it difficult to continue to wear contact lenses.

Anything which irritates the eye may cause conjunctivitis also. These include:

  • Chemicals.
  • Smoke.
  • Dust.
  • Over-use of contact lenses (often extended-wear lenses) can lead to conjunctivitus.

Symptoms

Symptoms include:

Exams and Tests

Your health care provider will:

  • Examine your eyes
  • Swab the conjunctiva to get a sample for analysis

There are tests that can sometimes be done in the office to look for a specific type of virus as the cause.

Treatment

Treatment of conjunctivitis depends on the cause.

Allergic conjunctivitis may improve when allergies are treated. It may go away on its own when you avoid your allergy triggers. Cool compresses may help soothe allergic conjunctivitis. Eye drops in the form of antihistamines for the eye or drops containing steroids, may be necessary in more severe cases.

Antibiotic medicines work well to treat conjunctivitis caused by bacteria. These are most often given in the form of eye drops. Viral conjunctivitis will go away on its own without antibiotics. Mild steroid eye drops may help ease discomfort.

If your eyes are dry, if may help to use artificial tears in conjunction with any other drops you may be using. Crustiness of the eyelids can be helped by applying warm compresses. Gently press clean cloth soaked in warm water to your closed eyes.

Other helpful steps include:

  • DO NOT smoke and avoid secondhand smoke, direct wind, and air conditioning.
  • Use a humidifier, such as in the winter.
  • Limit medicines that may dry you out and worsen your symptoms.
  • Clean eyelashes regularly and apply warm compresses.

Outlook (Prognosis)

The outcome for bacterial infections is most often good with early antibiotic treatment. Pinkeye (viral conjunctivitis) can easily spread through entire households or classrooms.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Contact your provider if:

  • Your symptoms last longer than 3 or 4 days.
  • Your vision is affected.
  • You have light sensitivity.
  • You develop eye pain that is severe or becoming worse.
  • Your eyelids or the skin around your eyes becomes swollen or red.
  • You have a headache in addition to your other symptom.

Prevention

Good hygiene can help prevent the spread of conjunctivitis. Things you can do include:

  • Change pillowcases often.
  • DO NOT share eye makeup and replace it regularly.
  • DO NOT share towels or handkerchiefs.
  • Handle and clean contact lenses properly.
  • Keep hands away from the eye.
  • Wash your hands often.

References

Barnes SD, Kumar NM, Pavan-Langston D, Azar DT. Microbial conjunctivitis. In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, Updated Edition. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 114.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Conjunctivitis (pink eye): prevention. www.cdc.gov/conjunctivitis/about/prevention.html. Updated October 7, 2017. Accessed September 4, 2018.

Dupre AA, Wightman JM. Red and painful eye. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 19.

Holtz KK, Townsend KR, Furst JW, et al. An assessment of the adenoplus point-of-care test for diagnosing adenoviral conjunctivitis and its effect on antibiotic stewardship. Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality & Outcome. 2017;1(2): 170-175. mcpiqojournal.org/article/S2542-4548(17)30031-0/abstract. Accessed September 4, 2018.

Rubenstein JB, Spektor T. Conjunctivitis: infectious and noninfectious. In: Yanoff M, Duker JS, eds. Ophthalmology. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 4.6.

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    • Let's talk about pink eye

      Let's talk about pink eye

      Animation

    •  

      Let's talk about pink eye - Animation

      Let's talk about pink eye. I'm Dr. Alan Greene. Pink eye is a very common problem especially among children. And first off, yes it is contagious - very contagious. Whenever they touch their eyes, and it is common to rub eyes when you have pink eye, the hands are then infected and contagious. Then they touch other objects. They touch your hands. You have an infected hand and you touch your own nose or mouth or eye and you can get pink eye that way. So the best way to break that chain of infection is frequent hand washing spread by the hands. Now, often schools will recommend that kids have some kind of eye drops and antibiotic eye drops before they go back to school. This is often done. Most pink eye in general pink eye is defined as viral conjunctivitis. It's a virus where the antibiotics don't make a big difference. But if you do need to give eye drops for whatever reason for the eye, let me talk about how to get them in because with children, it can be kind of tough. And the best thing is you get them to lie down on their back, and when they're lying on their back, it's okay if they close their eyes or open their eyes - don't worry about trying to hold the eyes open. But just put 3, 4, or 5 drops right in the corner of the eye while they're lying flat and then when they do blink, their eyes open it will slip right in there. Take care of it that way. But be sure and wash your hands afterwards.

    • Eye

      Eye - illustration

      The eye is the organ of sight, a nearly spherical hollow globe filled with fluids (humors). The outer layer or tunic (sclera, or white, and cornea) is fibrous and protective. The middle layer (choroid, ciliary body and the iris) is vascular. The innermost layer (the retina) is nervous or sensory. The fluids in the eye are divided by the lens into the vitreous humor (behind the lens) and the aqueous humor (in front of the lens). The lens itself is flexible and suspended by ligaments which allow it to change shape to focus light on the retina, which is composed of sensory neurons.

      Eye

      illustration

    • Let's talk about pink eye

      Animation

    •  

      Let's talk about pink eye - Animation

      Let's talk about pink eye. I'm Dr. Alan Greene. Pink eye is a very common problem especially among children. And first off, yes it is contagious - very contagious. Whenever they touch their eyes, and it is common to rub eyes when you have pink eye, the hands are then infected and contagious. Then they touch other objects. They touch your hands. You have an infected hand and you touch your own nose or mouth or eye and you can get pink eye that way. So the best way to break that chain of infection is frequent hand washing spread by the hands. Now, often schools will recommend that kids have some kind of eye drops and antibiotic eye drops before they go back to school. This is often done. Most pink eye in general pink eye is defined as viral conjunctivitis. It's a virus where the antibiotics don't make a big difference. But if you do need to give eye drops for whatever reason for the eye, let me talk about how to get them in because with children, it can be kind of tough. And the best thing is you get them to lie down on their back, and when they're lying on their back, it's okay if they close their eyes or open their eyes - don't worry about trying to hold the eyes open. But just put 3, 4, or 5 drops right in the corner of the eye while they're lying flat and then when they do blink, their eyes open it will slip right in there. Take care of it that way. But be sure and wash your hands afterwards.

    • Eye

      Eye - illustration

      The eye is the organ of sight, a nearly spherical hollow globe filled with fluids (humors). The outer layer or tunic (sclera, or white, and cornea) is fibrous and protective. The middle layer (choroid, ciliary body and the iris) is vascular. The innermost layer (the retina) is nervous or sensory. The fluids in the eye are divided by the lens into the vitreous humor (behind the lens) and the aqueous humor (in front of the lens). The lens itself is flexible and suspended by ligaments which allow it to change shape to focus light on the retina, which is composed of sensory neurons.

      Eye

      illustration

     

    Review Date: 8/28/2018

    Reviewed By: Franklin W. Lusby, MD, ophthalmologist, Lusby Vision Institute, La Jolla, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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