Return to Index
The Eyes Have It: Conjunctivitis
The change from summer to fall and winter brings different problems to each of us. For some, the seasonal changes bring the all-too-familiar allergies, colds, and flu. For others it brings conjunctivitis, an inflammation of the conjunctiva. The conjunctiva is a thin, transparent layer that covers the inner eyelid and the white part of the eye.
The symptoms of conjunctivitis can run from annoying to painful, and include:
- Red, watery eyes
- Inflamed inner eyelids
- Scratchy feeling in the eyes
- Itchy eyes
- Pus-like or watery discharge
- Sensitivity to light
- Swelling of the eyelid
Types of Conjunctivitis
There are five types of conjunctivitis:
- Allergic—which occurs with exposure to allergens such as pollen, pet hair, or dander
- Chemical—which occurs with exposure to irritants such as hairspray and pollutants
- Ophthalmia neonatorum—which occurs when an infant is exposed to bacteria in the birth canal
- Bacterial conjunctivitis—which occurs with exposure to some sort of bacteria
- Viral conjunctivitis—which is caused by a virus
The best way to treat allergic and chemical conjunctivitis is to remove the allergen or pollutant from your daily environment. You should also:
- Flush your eyes with cold water.
- Avoid rubbing your eyes.
- Apply a cold compress.
- Avoid using eye makeup and contacts.
Preventing Conjunctivitis from Spreading
Both bacterial and viral conjunctivitis are contagious. If you get either of these types of conjunctivitis, measures should be taken to avoid spreading the condition to your other eye or to other people. These measures include:
- Wash your hands thoroughly and often.
- Avoid rubbing the infected eye or eyes.
- Do not share towels, pillowcases, or handkerchiefs with others, and use these items only once before washing.
- Place a clean towel over the pillowcase each night to avoid re-infection.
- Do not share eye makeup with others, especially eyeliner and mascara. And avoid using any eye makeup at all while you are suffering from any type of conjunctivitis.
- If your child gets bacterial or viral conjunctivitis, you should keep them out of school for a few days. Otherwise, it is not uncommon for the condition to spread throughout an entire class.
When to Seek Treatment
Conjunctivitis will often go away by itself, but if not, it can be cured relatively easily. However, certain types of conjunctivitis, if left untreated, can cause permanent damage to your cornea and impair your vision permanently. You should immediately seek treatment if:
- You develop redness or discomfort in your eye that is affecting your vision.
- The redness, swelling, and/or discomfort in your eye starts to become painful, or a yellow or green discharge begins to develop.
- You have a newborn child whose eyes are inflamed. This may be a sign of ophthalmia neonatorum which, if not treated quickly, can lead to permanent eye damage.
American Academy of Ophthalmology
National Eye Institute
Canadian Family Physician
Allergic conjunctivitis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/. Updated July 31, 2015. Accessed August 13, 2015.
Infectious conjunctivitis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/. Updated June 9, 2015. Accessed August 13, 2015.
Ophthalmia neonatorum. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/. Updated June 9, 2015. Accessed August 13, 2015.
Raizman MB, Rothman JS, Maroun F, Rand WM. Effect of eye rubbing on signs and symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis in cat-sensitive individuals. Ophthalmology. 2000 Dec;107(12):2158-2161.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Update Date: 10/14/2013