Conjunctivitis

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In most cases, conjunctivitis is relatively easy to treat, if you contact your doctor early. You may miss a few days of school or work, but serious complications are rare.

The treatment for conjunctivitis depends on the cause. The inflammation may be caused by bacteria, a virus, allergies, or an irritant in your eye.

This section includes information on:

  • Bacterial conjunctivitis
  • Viral conjunctivitis
  • Allergic conjunctivitis
  • Irritating substance
  • Conjunctivitis in newborns
  • How to insert eye medicine
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis

    Bacterial conjunctivitis can be treated with antibiotics, which kill bacteria. The antibiotics are usually taken as eye drops or ointments, but they can also be in the form of pills. Eye drops or ointments are usually applied to the inside of the eyelid three to four times a day for five to seven days. Pills may need to be taken for several days.

    The infection should improve within a week, and begin to improve within a few days. Continue taking the medicine for the period instructed by the doctor, even if symptoms have subsided. If you stop taking antibiotics early, the bacteria causing your infection could develop resistance to the antibiotic, making your next infection harder to treat.

    Although serious complications are rare, bacterial conjunctivitis can sometimes invade the cornea and damage your eyesight, so it's important to get treatment.

    Viral conjunctivitis

    Viral conjunctivitis cannot be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses; they are used to fight bacterial infections. Instead, much like the common cold—another viral infection—the infection will in most cases run its course within four to seven days. Keep your eyes and hands clean. A cold compress may help relieve symptoms.

    Allergic conjunctivitis

    Allergic conjunctivitis can be treated with medicines and by avoiding the allergen.

    Medicines for allergic conjunctivitis may be eye drops or pills. Antihistamines, decongestants, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and mast-cell stabilizers can all help fight the body's allergic reaction. Your doctor may prescribe medicines in these categories or suggest over-the-counter products for you to try.

    Allergens that can cause allergic conjunctivitis include chemicals in soaps, medicines, makeup, and other products. Grass, ragweed pollen, animal dander, and dust mites are very common allergens.

    To determine the source of an allergen and the best treatment options, see an ophthalmologist and an allergist.

    Irritating substance

    If conjunctivitis is being caused by an irritant in your eye, such as pepper or a speck of dirt, flush the eye for five minutes with warm water to wash the irritating substance from the eye. Irritation should begin to dissipate quickly (although sometimes the flushing-out can itself cause temporary redness). If the irritation persists, contact a doctor.

    Conjunctivitis in newborns

    Doctors routinely give babies antibiotic ointment or eye drops after birth because of the bacteria normally present in and around the birth canal. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as chlamydia or herpes can get into an infant's eyes during delivery. Eye drops prevent the STDs from taking hold, but they sometimes cause mild allergic reactions. Screening and treating pregnant women for STDs could prevent many cases of conjunctivitis among newborns. If you are pregnant and think you might have a sexually transmitted disease, talk to your doctor about getting treatment and protecting your baby from conjunctivitis and other dangers during birth.

    How to insert eye medicine

    1. Wash your hands with soap and warm water. Dry them with a clean towel.

    2. If you are putting in your own eye medicine, lie down or use a mirror. Ask someone to check that you are getting the medicine in your eye.

    3. Look up to the ceiling with both eyes.

    4. Pull the lower lid of your eye down with one hand. Hold the medicine bottle or tube in your other hand (rest part of your hand on your face if necessary to keep it steady).

    5. Place a drop of medicine or a small amount of ointment inside your lower lid. The tip of the medicine bottle or tube should not touch your eye.

    6. Close your eyes for a minute after putting in the medicine. Blink and wipe away any excess moisture with a tissue.

    7. If you are prescribed both eye drops and eye ointment, use the eye drops first.

    8. If you have more than one eye medicine to put in your eyes, wait about five minutes after the first medicine before putting in the second one.

    If you have any questions, talk to your eye care doctor. If you find the application of drops into an open eye disconcerting, you can put the drops in the inner corner of your closed eye. When you open your eye, the medicine will flow into it.

    Last reviewed on 06/23/2008

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