Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the membrane covering the inside of your eyelids and the outer part of your eyeball. Commonly called "pink eye," conjunctivitis is generally not serious but can be highly contagious.

Signs and Symptoms

Conjunctivitis causes the following symptoms in one or both eyes.

What Causes It?

Conjunctivitis is most often the result of viruses, like those that cause the common cold. Conjunctivitis can also be caused by bacterial infections, allergies, chemicals, irritation from contact lenses, or eye injury. Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are very contagious.

What to Expect at Your Provider's Office

If both eyes are affected, with itching and a clear discharge, it's likely that allergies are the cause. Swollen glands usually indicate a virus, and a thick, crusty discharge is a sign of a bacterial infection.

Your provider may use a lamp for closer examination, or gently swab a stain across the surface of your eye. He or she may test your vision or measure the pressure in your eye, to rule out glaucoma.

Treatment Options

Conjunctivitis is generally not a serious problem and often will go away by itself. But it is still important to consult your health care provider. Chronic conjunctivitis, left untreated, can cause permanent eye damage.

Treatment varies according to the cause of inflammation. Bacterial conjunctivitis is generally treated with antibiotics. Forms of conjunctivitis caused by viruses do not respond to antibiotics, but antihistamines and anti-inflammatory medications may help relieve your symptoms. Cool compresses may help to reduce itching and swelling.

Drug Therapies

Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Alternative therapies can help relieve your symptoms. If you have a mild case of conjunctivitis, begin with compresses. For a moderate infection, use an eyewash as well.

Doses listed are for adults. Decrease by one-half to two-thirds for children, at the recommendation of a health care provider. Vitamin A (10,000 IU per day), vitamin C (250 to 500 mg two times per day), and zinc (30 to 50 mg per day) strengthen your immune system and help you heal faster.

Herbs may be used as dried extracts (capsules, powders, teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Compresses and eye washes are external treatments. A compress is made with a clean cloth, gauze pads, or cotton balls soaked in a solution and then applied over the eyes. Eye washes may be administered with an eye cup or a sterile dropper.

Compress: Use five drops of tincture in ¼ cup water or steep 1 tsp. herb in 1 cup hot water for 5 to 10 minutes and strain. Soak cloth or gauze in solution and apply to the eyes for 10 minutes, three to four times a day. Use above herbs singly or in combination: Mix equal parts together then steep 1 tsp. herb in 1 cup of hot water to make a tea. Cool before administering to the eye.

Eyewash: goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and boric acid: 10 drops of goldenseal tincture with 1 tsp. of boric acid in 1 cup of water.

Although very few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic therapies, professional homeopaths may consider the following remedies for the treatment of conjunctivitis based on their knowledge and experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type. A constitutional type is defined as a person's physical, emotional, and psychological makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate treatment for each individual. Acupuncture
Treatment may be administered for pain relief and relieving congestion.

Following Up

Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are both very contagious. Family members should use separate towels. Wash your hands often. Children should generally be kept home from school and day care.

Be sure to follow your health care provider's advice about using any medications, particularly if you have been given antibiotics or corticosteroids. If you wear contact lenses, keep them clean to avoid further irritation and future infections. Do not wear them until your eyes have healed.

People with allergy-related conjunctivitis sometimes develop a severe form with a stringy discharge, swollen eyelids, scaly skin, and significant discomfort. This needs aggressive treatment to prevent scarring of the cornea.

Special Considerations

In most U.S. hospitals, medication such as silver nitrate is routinely administered to the eyes of newborns to prevent conjunctivitis from developing from bacteria in the birth canal


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