Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2002;66(9):1652

What is conjunctivitis?

Conjunctivitis (say: “con-junk-tiv-eye-tis”) is an inflammation in a part of your eye. The conjunctiva is a thin lining that covers the whites of the eyes and the insides of the eyelids. This lining helps protect your eyes. The conjunctiva can be irritated by chemicals, contact lenses, dry eyes, allergic reactions, or foreign bodies, such as sand, in the eyes. Most often, though, conjunctivitis is caused by a virus and goes away in a few days without any treatment.

Sometimes conjunctivitis is a sign of a more serious problem. It might be a bad infection, a rare type of cancer, swollen glands on the edge of the eyelid (called styes), or an eye problem called glaucoma (say: “glaw-co-ma”). Glaucoma is caused by too much pressure inside the eyeball. Sexually transmitted diseases (such as chlamydia infection) can also cause infections in the eye, but these are rare.

Conjunctivitis sometimes can be confused with a more serious condition called iritis (say: “eye-rite-iss”). If you have pain in your eye or any sudden changes in your vision, call your doctor right away. If light makes your eyes hurt, you should tell your doctor as soon as possible.

What shows that I might have conjunctivitis?

The most common signs of conjunctivitis are bloodshot or watery eyes, stinging, and burning. Itching can be a sign of allergic conjunctivitis or a sign of infection. If your conjunctivitis is caused by bacteria (germs), you might have thick, white fluid or pus coming out of your eye. If a virus has caused your infection, the fluid coming out of your eyes usually is clear.

What can I do to keep from getting conjunctivitis?

Conjunctivitis that is caused by viruses or bacteria can be spread from person to person. It is important to wash your hands with soap often during the day. Try not to touch your eyes or rub your eyes with your fingers. If you have conjunctivitis that is caused by an allergy, try to stay away from the things you are allergic to.

Can I treat conjunctivitis myself?

See your doctor before you try to treat yourself. If you have a virus, your doctor might not recommend any treatment. If you have bacterial conjunctivitis, you might need to use antibiotic eye drops. If you have allergic conjunctivitis, your doctor might want you to put cold compresses on the eye or take a non-prescription antihistamine (such as Benadryl or Chlor-Trimeton). Your doctor also might prescribe a non-drowsy oral antihistamine or antihistamine eye drops.

If you wear contact lenses, take them out until you've seen your doctor or until your symptoms have completely gone away.

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