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Conjunctivitis
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Diane Callahan, R.N., CRNO
Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Harvard Medical School
October 15, 2002

What is conjunctivitis?
Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the mucous membrane that lines the eyelids and covers the white of the eyeball. Symptoms of conjunctivitis include redness, discharge, burning, and sometimes itching and light sensitivity. It can occur in one eye or both.

What causes conjunctivitis?
The most common cause of conjunctivitis is a viral infection. Other causes include seasonal allergies, bacterial infection, and reactions to eye medications.

How is conjunctivitis transmitted?
Viral conjunctivitis can be transmitted FROM one person to another by casual contact, sharing towels or pillow cases, facial contact, or sharing of cosmetics. It can occur before, during, or after a cold or upper respiratory infection because the same virus which causes the cold can cause a conjunctivitis. Viral conjunctivitis is very contagious in the first 10-12 days and may last up to 2-3 weeks.

Allergic conjunctivitis usually occurs in the spring and summer and is not contagious. It causes itching in addition to redness and tearing. It is caused by allergies to pollens FROM plants.

Bacterial conjunctivitis, like viral conjunctivitis, is contagious. Most people who develop bacterial conjunctivitis, also have other eye conditions such as dry eyes or inflammation of the eyelids (blepharitis). There is a sexually transmitted type of conjunctivitis, called chlamydial conjunctivitis, which often produces symptoms of long duration (>4 weeks).

What precautions should I take when I have conjunctivitis?
The most important precaution is to be extremely strict with handwashing. Always wash hands with soap and water before and after touching the eyes. Avoid any facial contact with others while you are HAVING symptoms. Don't let others use your personal articles such as towels, pillows, or cosmetics. If you are a contact lens wearer, you should not wear contact lenses while you have any symptoms. People who provide healthcare, food services, or education should not work until their eyes feel and look normal because of the risk of spreading the infection to others.

What is the basic therapy and treatment?
Treatment varies depending on the specific cause of conjunctivitis. For viral conjunctivitis using a cool wet cloth 3-4 times a day and applying artificial tears will relieve the symptoms. If there is a suspcicion of bacterial conjunctivitis antibiotic drops or ointment are usually given. Allergic conjunctivitis may be relieved by over the counter medications such as Naphcon A or by prescription medications such as Livostin or Patanol.

If you have pain, decreased vision, or a strong light sensitivity associated with your symptoms of a red eye, you are likely to have a condition more serious than conjunctivitis. In this circumstance you should see an ophthalmologist (EyeMD), a medical doctor who specializes in medicine and surgery of the eyes immediately.
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The information and recommendations appearing on these pages are informational only and is not intended to be a basis for diagnosis, treatment or any other clinical application. For specific information concerning your personal medical condition, the DJO suggests that you consult your physician.