What causes conjunctivitis?

Conjunctivitis may be caused by a virus, an allergic reaction (to dust, pollen, smoke, fumes or chemicals) or, in the case of giant papillary conjunctivitis, a foreign body on the eye, typically a contact lens.  Other causes include exposure to infected persons and bacterial and viral infections elsewhere in the body.

Signs and symptoms of conjunctivitis

The hallmark sign of conjunctivitis is a pink or reddish appearance to the eye due to inflammation and dilation of conjunctival blood vessels.

Depending on the type of conjunctivitis, other signs and symptoms may include a yellow or green mucous discharge, watery eyes, itchy eyes, sensitivity to light, and pain.

How can you tell what type of pink eye you have? 

  • Viral conjunctivitis.  Usually causes excessive eye watering and a light discharge.
  • Allergic conjunctivitis.  Affects both eyes and causes itching and redness in the eyes and sometimes the nose, as well as excessive tearing.
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis.  Often causes a thick, sticky discharge, sometimes greenish.
  • Giant papillary conjunctivitis.  Usually affects both eyes and results in contact lens intolerance, itching, a heavy discharge, tearing, and bumps on the underside of the eyelids.

Treatment of conjunctivitis

  • Avoidance.  Your first line of defense is to avoid the cause of conjunctivitis.  Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis, which can be caused by airborne sources, spread easily to others.
  • Medication.  Topical antibiotics, steroids, antihistamines, and/or vasoconsrictors can be used to treat conjunctivitis.
  • Palliative.  Cool compresses and unpreserved artificial tears can decrease symptoms and increase comfort for most types of conjunctivitis.
  • Change contact lenses.   If you develop giant papillary conjunctivitis while wearing contact lenses, your eye docor may recommend that you switch to a different type of contact lens.

Usually, conjunctivitis is a minor eye problem.  However, the disease can develop into a more serious condition if it is not treated properly.  If you think you have conjunctivitis, see your eye doctor for a medical diagnosis before using any eye drops in your medicine cabinet.

Prevention tips

Though conjunctivitis can affect people of any age, it is especially common in preschoolers and school children.  Because young children often are in close contact in day care centers and school rooms, it can be difficult to avoid the spread of bacteria causing conjunctivitis.  However, these tips can help concerned parents, day care workers and teachers reduce the possibility of a conjunctivitis outbreak in institutional environments:

  • Adults in school and day care centers should wash their hands frequently and encourage children to do the same.  Soap should always be available for hand washing.
  • Personal items, including hand towels, should never be shared at school or at home.
  • Encourage children to use tissues and cover their mouths and noses when they sneeze or cough.
  • Discourage eye rubbing and touching to avoid spread of bacteria and viruses.
  • For about three to five days, children (and adults) diagnosed with conjunctivitis should avoid crowded conditions where the infection could easily spread.
  • Use antiseptic and/or antibacterial solutions to clean and wipe surfaces that children or adults come in contact with, such as common toys, table tops, drinking fountains, sink/faucet handles, etc.

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