Conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye, is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the membrane that lines the inner surface of the eyelid and part of the surface of the eye. Conjunctivitis is characterized by redness, clear or coloured discharge, and sometimes itching. It is more common in children, but can also affect adults.
Conjunctivitis can be caused by a variety of factors, including:
- Viruses (the same virus that causes the common cold)
- Foreign body in the eye
Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis require special attention because they are highly contagious. As a result, this information sheet focuses mostly on these two types of conjunctivitis.
While both cause redness and itching, the appearance of the discharge may help pinpoint the source of the infection: with viral conjunctivitis, discharge is abundant and clear, while it is moderate and purulent with bacterial conjunctivitis. Also, individuals with bacterial conjunctivitis often wake up in the morning feeling as though their eyes are glued shut. Viral conjunctivitis is more common than bacterial conjunctivitis.
The treatment of conjunctivitis depends on the cause. For the treatment of bacterial conjunctivitis, your pharmacist may recommend the use of antibiotic eye drops or ointment (e.g., Polysporin). If there is no improvement within 48 hours, you should see your doctor or optometrist. Children with bacterial conjunctivitis should be kept home for the first 24 hours after starting treatment to prevent spreading the infection.
As for viral conjunctivitis, there is no treatment. It usually resolves within two to four weeks. Symptoms, however, may worsen for three to five days before improving. The use of antibiotic treatments is ineffective for this type of infection. Lubricant drops or cold compresses may help relieve any related discomfort. Generally speaking, children with viral conjunctivitis do not need to stay home, unless there is an outbreak.
Here are some steps that can be taken to avoid reinfection or minimize the transmission of viral or bacterial conjunctivitis:
- Wash hands often with soap.
- Avoid contact between hands and the infected eye.
- Do not share tissues, bath towels, sheets or pillows.
- Throw out all eye make-up products that may have been contaminated.
- Avoid wearing contact lenses during the first 24 hours of treatment or until the eye is no longer red.
- Throw away your contact lenses and case (if disposable) or disinfect.
When should I see a medical professional?
- If you experience pain in the eye(s).
- If your vision is blurred.
- If you have difficulty keeping your eye open, or if you develop sensitivity to light.
- If you have severe headaches accompanied by nausea.
- If you recently sustained an eye injury.
- If you wear contact lenses.