Conjunctivitis: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment


Also known as pink eye, red eye or pinkeye, conjunctivitis refers to the inflammation of the transparent membrane that lines the white area of the eye and the inside of our eyelids, called the conjunctiva. Conjunctivitis is a contagious condition caused by various bacteria or viruses, but also a result of an allergic reaction. Aside from other specific symptoms, the condition is often accompanied by redness and either a liquid or a mucous discharge.

If a healthy person comes into contact with this discharge, the odds he or she gets conjunctivitis are high. Though contagious and quite unpleasant overall, conjunctivitis generally does not require medical treatment. However, it might be possible for your doctor to prescribe you anti-inflammatory medication, antihistamines or topical antibiotics if the condition is severe. There are, however, several ways to improve symptoms and promote faster healing.

Pink eye

So what is conjunctivitis of the eye? As mentioned above, conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the transparent membrane covering the white part of the eye and lining the inside of our eyelids. It is also called pink eye because the inflammation causes the blood vessels in the conjunctiva (the same blood vessels we see in the white part of our eye especially when our eyes get tired) to dilate and become red or pinkish in color.

What causes conjunctivitis?

Here are the main causes for the condition:
1) Viral infection.
2) Bacterial infection.
3) Allergic reaction.
4) Irritant substances in skin or hair products, cleaning products etc.
Conjunctivitis can appear in people of all ages and contracted fairly easily due to its high contagiousness.

Signs and symptoms

Although conjunctivitis does not affect vision, its symptoms may produce discomfort and distress. Here are the 8 common symptoms of conjunctivitis:
1) A pinkness or redness of the white of the eye.
2) Swollen and red eyelids.
3) Watery eyes or increased tears production.
4) Itching (usually in allergic conjunctivitis) and burning.
5) Thick, mucous-like white or yellow discharge (usually in bacterial conjunctivitis).
6) Crusty eyelids.
7) Rhinitis (irritated, stuffy, runny nose) due to allergies.
8) Blurred vision.
9) Light sensitivity.
One or both of the eyes may be affected.


Types of conjunctivitis

1) Viral conjunctivitis. Viral conjunctivitis can be caused by a wide range of viruses that trigger respiratory tract infections such as the common cold or flu. Adenoviruses, Herpes simplex, the Varicella zoster virus can all cause viral conjunctivitis. Adenoviruses affect us in greater numbers during the spring and fall months. Viral conjunctivitis is thus accompanied by flu-like symptoms such as light sensitivity, swollen lymph nodes, sneezing, feelings of unwell etc.

No antibiotic treatment is recommended because the virus has to run its course. In the case of a Herpes infection causing conjunctivitis, which is a rare occurrence, your doctor might prescribe you antiviral medication.Generally, people with viral conjunctivitis are not exempt from work unless their infection is severe. The pinkeye should clear in about 1 week, although complete recovery of the eye may take about 2 weeks.

2) Bacterial conjunctivitis. Staphylococcus infections, Haemophilus influenzae type B, Chlamydia trachomatis, Moraxella, Streptococci, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, etc. can all cause bacterial conjunctivitis. Eyelids are tender and red, the white of the eye becomes pinkish or red, eyes are watery and irritated. Crusting may appear and you may wake up with sealed eyelashes in the morning. There may be a white, yellow or even greenish thick discharge in more severe cases. Some sufferers also report a feeling their eyes gritty, as if there was sand in them or a foreign object. Pain may appear in severe cases.

Bacterial infections are generally treated with antibiotics so your doctor might prescribe you antibiotic eye drops or a topical antibiotic ointment. If only one eye is infected, the infection is likely to spread to the other eye as well. Cat scratches to the eye are also probable causes of bacterial eye infections and conjunctivitis and affect humans and dogs frequently. They need to be dealt with immediately at the doctor’s.

3) Allergic conjunctivitis. This is a result of an allergic reaction to various allergens such as plant pollen, certain substances in perfumes, skin care or cleaning products (depends on each individual in particular). The white of the eye becomes irritated and pink, the eyes are itchy and watery. A case of allergic conjunctivitis is also accompanied by allergic rhinitis so you might also experience a runny, watery and itchy nose as well as sneezing. Symptoms may be stronger on windy days for some people because the wind raises the pollen in the air.

Once you are no longer exposed to the allergen (go inside the house, for example), symptoms should start to clear. In certain cases, your doctor might prescribe you antihistamines to help you better deal with allergies.

4) Conjunctivitis caused by irritant substances. Some people are more sensitive than others, especially to chemicals in skin and hair products, cleaning products, smoke, fumes, etc. So for some of us, a certain eye lotion, face cream, perfume or cleaning product can make our eyes red, itchy and watery. This irritation is a sort of conjunctivitis as well and requires for us to clean our faces with a lot of cold water and consult our doctor if needed for further advice.

What to do about it

If you suspect you have conjunctivitis, it is important to address your doctor for adequate diagnosis and advice. If your condition is severe, your doctor can prescribe you anti-inflammatory medication, a topical antibiotic (for bacterial conjunctivitis) or antihistamines (if you have allergic conjunctivitis). If your condition is mild, here are a few tips to help you ease symptoms, hurry healing and make you more comfortable throughout the healing process:

1) Stay in bed if we feel unwell as a result of the infection.
2) Avoid makeup until the condition has cleared and disinfect brushes..
3) Throw away contact lenses worn while sick and wear glasses instead for the whole recovery period.
4) Clean face gently with water or cooled chamomile infusions.
5) Wash hands often and avoid touching our eyes or the discharge.
6) Do not share pillow cases, makeup products or tools, face products, towels, etc.
7) Use non-prescription artificial tears to help relieve itching, but avoid using the same products for both the infected and uninfected eye.
8) Gently clean crusts with a cotton ball soaked in water to help soak them.
9) Clean the discharge with soft cotton balls as often as needed and remember to wash your hands afterwards.
10) Take your vitamin C and vitamin A for good immunity and eye health.

Bell peppers, oranges, kiwifruit, carrots, blueberries, sweet potatoes and green leafy vegetables such as spinach are all great options. Some people use Eyewort (Euphrasia rostkoviana) compresses for the eyes for a faster healing.

How long does conjunctivitis last? Usually, conjunctivitis takes about 5-7 days to heal, but complete recovery may take up to two weeks. Almost 2/3 of cases do not require antibiotic or antiviral treatment. Nevertheless, it is best to see your doctor and let him or her decide what is the most suitable treatment plan for your. While adults are permitted to attend work, young children should be kept at home until their infection clears.

Complications may appear, but are usually rare. Scarring in the eye, vision problems or secondary infections may occur in particularly severe cases, hence the importance of visiting your doctor for a professional medical assessment and proper diagnosis. Nevertheless, good hygiene and a bit of patience can greatly improve symptoms and promote healing.