Conjunctivitis is an inflammation or infection of the conjunctiva, the thin transparent layer
of tissue that lines the inner surface of the eyelid and covers the white part of the eye.
Conjunctivitis, often called “pink eye,” is a common eye disease, especially in children. It may
affect one or both eyes. Some forms of conjunctivitis can be highly contagious and easily spread
in schools and at home. While conjunctivitis is usually a minor eye infection, sometimes it can
develop into a more serious problem.
Conjunctivitis may be caused by a viral or bacterial infection. It can also occur due to an allergic
reaction to irritants in the air like pollen and smoke, chlorine in swimming pools, and ingredients
in cosmetics or other products that come in contact with the eyes. Sexually transmitted diseases
like Chlamydia and gonorrhea are less common causes of conjunctivitis.
People with conjunctivitis may experience the following symptoms:
• A gritty feeling in one or both eyes
• Itching or burning sensation in one or both eyes
• Excessive tearing
• Discharge coming from one or both eyes
• Swollen eyelids
• Pink discoloration to the whites of one or both eyes
• Increased sensitivity to light
Treatment of conjunctivitis is directed at three main goals:
1. To increase patient comfort.
2. To reduce or lessen the course of the infection or inflammation.
3. To prevent the spread of the infection in contagious forms of conjunctivitis.
The appropriate treatment for conjunctivitis depends on its cause:
• Allergic conjunctivitis – The first step should be to remove or avoid the irritant, if
possible. Cool compresses and artificial tears sometimes relieve discomfort in mild cases.
In more severe cases, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications and antihistamines
may be prescribed. Cases of persistent allergic conjunctivitis may also require topical
steroid eye drops.
• Bacterial conjunctivitis – This type of conjunctivitis is usually treated with antibiotic
eye drops or ointments. Improvement can occur after three or four days of treatment, but
the entire course of antibiotics needs to be used to prevent recurrence.
• Viral Conjunctivitis – There are no available drops or ointments to eradicate the virus
for this type of conjunctivitis. Antibiotics will not cure a viral infection. Like a common
cold, the virus just has to run its course, which may take up to two or three weeks in
some cases. The symptoms can often be relieved with cool compresses and artificial
tear solutions. For the worst cases, topical steroid drops may be prescribed to reduce
the discomfort from inflammation, but do not shorten the course of the infection. Some
doctors may perform an ophthalmic iodine eye wash in the office in hopes of shortening
the course of the infection. This newer treatment has not been well studied yet, therefore
no conclusive evidence of the success exists.
• Chemical Conjunctivitis – Treatment for chemical conjunctivitis requires careful
flushing of the eyes with saline and may require topical steroids. The more acute
chemical injuries are medical emergencies, particularly alkali burns, which can lead to
severe scarring, intraocular damage or even loss of the eye.