What Is Conjunctivitis?
Conjunctivitis (red eye) occurs when the clear tissue covering the white of the eye and the inside of the eyelids becomes inflamed. There are multiple types of conjunctivitis, but the three most common are:
- Allergic conjunctivitis — This non-contagious condition is caused by exposure to an irritant such as pollen, animal dander, cigarette smoke, chlorine or car fumes.
- Bacterial conjunctivitis — This contagious infection is caused by bacteria, sometimes the same ones that cause strep throat.
- Viral conjunctivitis — This contagious infection is caused by a virus, usually the same one that causes the common cold. Viral conjunctivitis is also known as pink eye.
Risk factors for contracting conjunctivitis include:
- Contact lens use — People who wear unclean, poorly fitting or decorative contact lenses are more vulnerable to conjunctivitis.
- Contact with an infected person — Conjunctivitis is often spread through direct contact with someone else’s body fluids. This is especially true for viral conjunctivitis.
- Self-infection — Many people get viral conjunctivitis when they have a cold and touch their nose or mouth and then their eye.
Symptoms affecting one or both eyes can include:
- Discoloration — The white of the eye appears pink or red.
- Discharge — Viral and allergic conjunctivitis produce a watery discharge; bacterial conjunctivitis produces a pus-like discharge.
- Pain — Burning, itchiness, soreness or a gritty feeling is common.
- Blurry or hazy vision — Objects near and far may appear fuzzy or poorly defined.
- Light sensitivity — An intolerance to light causes discomfort and leads to squinting.
- Puffy eyelids — Inflammation of the eyelid can cause it to swell.
The treatment for conjunctivitis depends on its cause. Options include:
- Viral conjunctivitis — Medication won’t help a viral infection; the body will clear it on its own. Artificial tears and a cool, wet washcloth over the eyes can soothe symptoms.
- Bacterial conjunctivitis — This needs to be treated with antibiotic drops.
- Allergic conjunctivitis — Some eye drops can help relieve uncomfortable symptoms.
To prevent reinfection or the spread of contagious conjunctivitis, take precautions such as:
- Washing the hands frequently
- Always using clean towels, cloths or tissues near the eyes
- Not touching the eyes
- Avoiding eye makeup during an infection and replacing it afterward
- Strictly following the ophthalmologist’s instructions regarding contact lens use
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