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Informed Health Online [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-.

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Conjunctivitis: Do antibiotics help?

Last Update: November 7, 2012.

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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.

Conjunctivitis makes people’s eyes red and inflamed. It often affects both eyes because the infection can easily spread from one eye to the other. Your eyes get watery and produce a yellowish-white discharge that makes your eyelids stick together. They may become very sore too. Conjunctivitis is contagious but often gets better within a week, even without any treatment. So it is often enough to simply wait.

Conjunctivitis is usually caused by bacteria or viruses.  Because conjunctivitis usually goes away so quickly, though, it is generally not worth doing tests to find out if it is a bacterial or viral infection. Doctors often prescribe antibiotics just in case, in the form of eye drops or ointments. Antibiotics only work against bacteria, though, and not against viruses, so they are not always effective.

Some people use non-antibiotic eye drops. The use of cold or warm compresses is common too. But there is not enough research on these approaches to be able to say whether they have a benefit, no effect, or are possibly even harmful. Sometimes conjunctivitis is linked to an allergy. Then it is treated with allergy medicines like antihistamines.

Research on antibiotics in the treatment of conjunctivitis

Two groups of researchers from the Cochrane Collaboration (an international network of researchers) and from various universities in England, the Netherlands and Australia analyzed the results of trials on the treatment of conjunctivitis with antibiotics. They wanted to find out whether antibiotics help in the treatment of ordinary conjunctivitis, as well as which possible disadvantages they have.

The researchers only analyzed the results of studies that compared at least two groups of people. One group of people used antibiotic eye drops or ointments. The other group used non-antibiotic eye drops or ointments, or did not have any treatment at first. The researchers were only interested in studies in which the participants were randomly assigned to one of the treatment groups. This kind of study, called a randomized controlled trial, delivers the most reliable results. Read our information "Evidence-based medicine" to find out more about how good-quality trials are carried out.

The researchers found 12 trials, involving a total of about 4,000 people with conjunctivitis. Both children and adults participated in the trials.

Antibiotics can speed up recovery

Overall, the analysis of the trial results showed that conjunctivitis goes away somewhat faster if antibiotics are used. This is what was found for people who went to see their family doctor because they had conjunctivitis:

  • The infection cleared up within one week in 71 out of 100 people who did not use antibiotics.
  • The infection cleared up within that same amount of time in 80 out of 100 people who used antibiotics.

In other words, antibiotics were found to speed up recovery in 9 out of 100 people.

In studies that were carried out in a specialist practice, it took a little longer for the infection to clear up – both in the people who used antibiotics and in those who did not use antibiotics. One possible explanation for this is that people who go to see a specialist doctor probably have more severe cases of conjunctivitis. But the antibiotics had a similar beneficial effect to that found in the family doctor trials.

None of the trials reported that antibiotics had adverse effects. The trials did not look into whether antibiotics helped lower the risk of the infection spreading.

Recognizing signs of complications and avoiding the spread of infection

As already mentioned, conjunctivitis usually goes away without treatment. But some symptoms could be signs of more serious problems. These symptoms include worsening vision, increased sensitivity to light, the feeling that you have something in your eye, and a severe headache together with nausea. It is important to see a doctor if you have any of these symptoms.

In people who wear contact lenses, the infection can spread to the cornea (the clear surface of the eye itself). Inflammation of the cornea, also known as keratitis, is not common though: it is estimated that conjunctivitis leads to keratitis in about 3 out of every 10,000 contact lens wearers. In the trials that the researchers included in their analysis, none of the participants developed keratitis.

If conjunctivitis is caused by viruses it can be highly contagious and hard to get rid of. But there are several things that can be done to try to stop viral infections from spreading. Because the virus is easily spread through finger contact, it is important to avoid touching your eyes with your hands, and to wash your hands if you do accidentally touch your eyes. It is also a good idea to have your own towels and washcloths, and not to share them with other people. Another important way to protect others from infection is by not shaking hands with them and not touching their face.

Published by the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG)Next planned update:
October 2015. You can find out more about how our health information is updated in our text "Informed Health Online: How our information is produced".

References

  • IQWiG health information is based on research in the international literature. We identify the most scientifically reliable knowledge currently available, particularly what are known as “systematic reviews”. These summarize and analyze the results of scientific research on the benefits and harms of treatments and other health care interventions. This helps medical professionals and people who are affected by the medical condition to weigh up the pros and cons. You can read more about systematic reviews and why these can provide the most trustworthy evidence about the state of knowledge in our information "Evidence-based medicine". We also have our health information reviewed to ensure medical and scientific accuracy.
  • Jefferis J, Perera R, Everitt H, van Weert H, Rietveld R, Glasziou P et al. Acute infective conjunctivitis in primary care: who needs antibiotics? An individual patient data meta-analysis. Br J Gen Pract 2011; 61(590): e542-548. [Full text] [PMC free article: PMC3162176] [PubMed: 22152728]
  • Sheikh A, Hurwitz B, van Schayck CP, McLean S, Nurmatov U. Antibiotics versus placebo for acute bacterial conjunctivitis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2012; (9): CD001211. [Summary] [PubMed: 22972049]
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