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Diseases & Conditions

Fast Facts: Conjunctivitis

When the mucus membrane that covers the outer surface of the eyeball (the conjunctiva) gets red and irritated, the condition is known as conjunctivitis. "Pink eye" is a type of conjunctivitis that many children experience.

Conjunctivitis can be present in just one eye, or it can affect both eyes at the same time. Most cases of conjunctivitis are easily cured. If it is not treated, however, conjunctivitis can become dangerous.

Causes include infection or allergy

The infection or allergy makes the conjunctiva red. Sometimes the eye also itches, but not always. It may feel like there is sand or some kind of dirt in the eye, but nothing is really there. Tell your doctor exactly how your eye feels so he or she can determine whether an infection or an allergy is causing your conjunctivitis.

Signs and symptoms include:

  • Redness of the eyes or the edges of the eyelids
  • Swelling of the eyelids
  • Overflowing tears
  • Thick discharge
  • Sticky eyelids
  • Crusty eyelids (especially after sleeping)
  • Itching or feeling of sand in the eye

Don’t rub your eyes.

Only a doctor can recommend the right treatment, but if you have conjunctivitis, follow one simple rule: don't touch or rub your eyes. There are different treatments for conjunctivitis, depending on its severity and whether it is caused by allergy or infection.

Treatment for allergic conjunctivitis

There are different kinds of allergies that can cause conjunctivitis. Chemicals in soaps, medicines, makeup, or other products that get into the eye can cause some allergies. The conjunctivitis may go away if these products are not used, or if they are kept away from the eye.

Other allergies are caused by pets, plants, or other things that send small particles into the air. The doctor may suggest a special way to wash the eye or may recommend using eye drops. These could be eye drops called "artificial tears," which keep the eye clean and wet or eye drops with medication. Different medicines are used for different kinds of allergies.

Treatment for infectious conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis caused by an infection can be serious, resulting in a temporary or permanent loss of vision. Also, the infection can spread. Children with "pink eye" often get conjunctivitis germs on their hands by rubbing their eyes, then leave the germs on the objects they touch. To avoid spreading the infection, don’t share wash cloths and towels or swim in a public pool.

The same viruses that cause colds can also cause infectious conjunctivitis, as well as other kinds of viruses and bacteria. Infectious conjunctivitis is treated by keeping the eye (and hands) clean and using the right kind of eye drops. Your doctor will explain how to clean the eye and will also prescribe eye drops for the kind of infection you have.

It is very important to use the eye drops correctly, which is usually explained by your doctor or health care professional. Even if the eye starts to look healthy again, keep using the eye drops for as many days as recommended. Infectious conjunctivitis can come back.

Other causes of conjunctivitis

One kind of conjunctivitis happens in a few people who wear contact lenses or who have stitches in their eyes. Giant papillary conjunctivitis makes the underside of the eyelids very irritated and swollen. If you are diagnosed with this type of conjunctivitis, the doctor may recommend a different kind of contact lens, a different way to clean the contact lenses, or not wearing contact lenses for some time.

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This article appears in the Health Extra Newsletter (now Children's Health Essentials).

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 6/24/2002

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