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Conjunctivitis

Definition

Conjunctivitis is swelling (inflammation) or infection of the membrane lining the eyelids (conjunctiva).

Alternative Names

Inflammation - conjunctiva; Pink eye

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

The conjunctiva is exposed to bacteria and other irritants. Tears help protect the conjunctiva by washing away bacteria. Tears also contain enzymes and antibodies that kill bacteria.

There are many causes of conjunctivitis. Viruses are the most common cause. Other causes include:

  • Allergies (allergic conjunctivitis)
  • Bacteria
  • Certain diseases
  • Chemical exposure
  • Chlamydia
  • Fungi
  • Parasites (rarely)
  • Use of contact lenses (especially extended-wear lenses)

"Pink eye" refers to a viral infection of the conjunctiva. These infections are especially contagious among children.

Newborns can be infected by bacteria in the birth canal. This condition is called ophthalmia neonatorum, and it must be treated immediately to preserve eyesight.

See also:

Symptoms

Signs and tests

  • Examination of the eyes
  • Swab of conjunctiva for analysis

Treatment

Treatment of conjunctivitis depends on the cause.

Allergic conjunctivitis may respond to allergy treatment. It may disappear on its own when the allergen that caused it is removed. Cool compresses may help soothe allergic conjunctivitis.

Antibiotic medication, usually eye drops, is effective for bacterial conjunctivitis. Viral conjunctivitis will disappear on its own. Many doctors give a mild antibiotic eyedrop for pink eye to prevent bacterial conjunctivitis.

You can soothe the discomfort of viral or bacterial conjunctivitis by applying warm compresses (clean cloths soaked in warm water) to your closed eyes.

Expectations (prognosis)

The outcome is usually good with treatment.

Complications

Reinfection within a household or school may occur if you don't follow preventive measures.

Calling your health care provider

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if your symptoms last longer than 3 or 4 days.

Prevention

Good hygiene can help prevent the spread of conjunctivitis:

  • Change pillowcases frequently.
  • Do not share eye cosmetics.
  • Do not share towels or handkerchiefs.
  • Handle and clean contact lenses properly.
  • Keep hands away from the eye.
  • Replace eye cosmetics regularly.
  • Wash your hands often.

References

Wright JL, Wightman JM. Red and painful eye. In: Marx JA, ed. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 32.

Rubenstein JB, Virasch V. Conjunctivitis: Infectious and noninfectious. In: Yanoff M, Duker JS, eds. Ophthalmology. 3rd ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby Elsevier; 2008:chap 4.6.


Review Date: 8/3/2010
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington, School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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