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In more than half of all people who have conjunctivitis, the infection goes away without treatment within a week. Antibiotic eye drops or ointment can speed up recovery. Adverse effects are very rare.

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A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia [Internet]. Atlanta (GA): A.D.A.M.; 2013.

A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia.

Conjunctivitis

Inflammation - conjunctiva; Pink eye

Last reviewed: August 14, 2012.

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

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 proteins and antibodies that kill bacteria.

There are many causes of conjunctivitis. Viruses are the most common cause. Viral conjuctivitis is referred to as "pink eye." Pink eye can spread easily among children.

Other causes include:

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.

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 you avoid your allergy triggers. 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 eyedrops 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Yanoff M, Cameron D. Diseases of the visual system. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 431.

Review Date: 8/14/2012.

Reviewed by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

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Copyright © 2013, A.D.A.M., Inc.

A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial policy, editorial process and privacy policy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch).

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 endorsementscof those other sites. © 1997–2011 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

Copyright © 2013, A.D.A.M., Inc.

What works?

  • Antibiotics versus placebo for acute bacterial conjunctivitisAntibiotics versus placebo for acute bacterial conjunctivitis
    Acute bacterial conjunctivitis is an infective condition in which one or both eyes become red and inflamed. The condition is not normally serious and in most cases resolves spontaneously. People with acute conjunctivitis are often given antibiotics, usually as eye drops or ointment, to speed recovery. The benefits of antibiotics to the sufferer of conjunctivitis have been questioned. We found 11 randomised controlled trial (RCTs) from different parts of the world which recruited a total of 3673 participants overall. We judged two of the trials to be of high quality, and we graded the remainder as poor quality. This updated review provides clearer evidence that use of antibiotic eye drops can speed up the resolution of symptoms and infection, and that they are unlikely to be associated with any serious side effects.
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