Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the membrane covering the inside of your
eyelids and the outer part of your eyeball. Commonly called "pink eye,"
conjunctivitis is generally not serious but can be highly contagious.
Signs and Symptoms
Conjunctivitis causes the following symptoms in one or both
Discharge (watery or thick)
Crust that forms overnight
Sensitivity to light
What Causes It?
Conjunctivitis is most often the result of viruses, like those that cause the
common cold. Conjunctivitis can also be caused by bacterial infections,
allergies, chemicals, irritation from contact lenses, or eye injury. Viral and
bacterial conjunctivitis are very contagious.
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
If both eyes are affected, with itching and a clear discharge, it's likely
that allergies are the cause. Swollen glands usually indicate a virus, and a
thick, crusty discharge is a sign of a bacterial infection.
Your provider may use a lamp for closer examination, or gently swab a stain
across the surface of your eye. He or she may test your vision or measure the
pressure in your eye, to rule out glaucoma.
Conjunctivitis is generally not a serious problem and often will go away by
itself. But it is still important to consult your health care provider. Chronic
conjunctivitis, left untreated, can cause permanent eye damage.
Treatment varies according to the cause of inflammation. Bacterial
conjunctivitis is generally treated with antibiotics. Forms of conjunctivitis
caused by viruses do not respond to antibiotics, but antihistamines and
anti-inflammatory medications may help relieve your symptoms. Cool compresses
may help to reduce itching and swelling.
Viral conjunctivitis: Cool compresses three times daily for 1 to 3
weeks; may also use antihistamines to relieve inflammation. Trifluridine 1%
drops, every 2 hours. Oral and/or topical acyclovir may also be
Allergic conjunctivitis: Avoid contact with allergen. Treat with cool
compresses, over-the-counter or topical antihistamines, NSAIDs (particularly
ketorolac), and possibly mild corticosteroids.
Bacterial conjunctivitis: trimethoprim sulfate and polymixin B
sulfate drops, 1 drop 3 times daily for one week, or polymixin B-bacitracin
ointment. Fluoroquinolones as second-line therapy. Tobramycin (0.3%) or
gentamicin as drops, or 10% sodium sulfacetamide as drops, every four
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
Alternative therapies can help relieve your symptoms. If you have a mild case
of conjunctivitis, begin with compresses. For a moderate infection, use an
eyewash as well.
Doses listed are for adults. Decrease by one-half to two-thirds for children,
at the recommendation of a health care provider. Vitamin A (10,000 IU per day),
vitamin C (250 to 500 mg two times per day), and zinc (30 to 50 mg per day)
strengthen your immune system and help you heal faster.
Herbs may be used as dried extracts (capsules, powders, teas), glycerites
(glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Compresses and eye washes
are external treatments. A compress is made with a clean cloth, gauze pads, or
cotton balls soaked in a solution and then applied over the eyes. Eye washes may
be administered with an eye cup or a sterile dropper.
Compress: Use five drops of tincture in ¼ cup water or steep 1 tsp. herb in 1
cup hot water for 5 to 10 minutes and strain. Soak cloth or gauze in solution
and apply to the eyes for 10 minutes, three to four times a day.
Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis): helps fight infection and
dry up excess fluid, specific for eyes
Plantain (Plantago lanceolata, P. major): astringent and
soothing. The fresh leaves are the most effective plant part.
Flaxseed (Linum usitat issimum): as a soothing poultice made
with 1 oz. of bruised flaxseed steeped for 15 minutes in 4 oz. of water, wrapped
in cheesecloth, then applied directly to the affected eye.
Grated fresh potato has astringent (drying and disinfecting)
properties. Wrap in cheesecloth and apply.
Use above herbs singly or in combination: Mix equal parts together then steep
1 tsp. herb in 1 cup of hot water to make a tea. Cool before administering to
Eyewash: goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and boric acid: 10 drops of
goldenseal tincture with 1 tsp. of boric acid in 1 cup of
Although very few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific
homeopathic therapies, professional homeopaths may consider the following
remedies for the treatment of conjunctivitis based on their knowledge and
experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's
constitutional type. A constitutional type is defined as a person's physical,
emotional, and psychological makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of
these factors when determining the most appropriate treatment for each
Euphrasia -- for conjunctivitis with large volumes of watery
tears that burn the face and may in time become a thick discharge; despite the
production of watery tears, the individual complains of a dry, gritty sensation
in the eyes
Argentum nitricum -- for red, swollen eyes with pus-like
discharge and splintering pains
Pulsatilla -- for conjunctivitis with yellow-green discharge
and itchy eyes that may accompany or immediately follow a cold; the eyelids tend
to stick together and symptoms generally improve with cold compresses; this
remedy is most appropriate for individuals who tend to be irritable and have
Belladonna -- for the first stages of conjunctivitis including
the sudden onset of burning, bloodshot eyes, swollen eyelids, and
hypersensitivity to light; the eyes are generally hot and throbbing to the touch
Sulphur -- for burning, pain, and redness of the eyes
accompanied by a yellow discharge with foul odor; the eyes are often crusted
together and the individual is usually very hot and thirsty
Apis mellifica -- for red, burning eyes and excessive swelling
that feel better with cold applications
Treatment may be administered for pain relief and relieving
Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are both very contagious. Family members
should use separate towels. Wash your hands often. Children should generally be
kept home from school and day care.
Be sure to follow your health care provider's advice about using any
medications, particularly if you have been given antibiotics or corticosteroids.
If you wear contact lenses, keep them clean to avoid further irritation and
future infections. Do not wear them until your eyes have healed.
People with allergy-related conjunctivitis sometimes develop a severe form
with a stringy discharge, swollen eyelids, scaly skin, and significant
discomfort. This needs aggressive treatment to prevent scarring of the
In most U.S. hospitals, medication such as silver nitrate is routinely
administered to the eyes of newborns to prevent conjunctivitis from developing
from bacteria in the birth canal.
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Review Date: August 1999
Reviewed By: Participants in the review process include: Richard A. Lippin, MD, President,
The Lippin Group, Southampton, PA; Sherif H. Osman, MD, President, Medical Staff
Harford Memorial Hospital, Falston General Hospital, Bel Air, MD; Paul Rogers,
MD, Facility Medical Director, Bright Oaks Pediatrics, Bel Air MD; Tom Wolfe,
P.AHG, Smile Herb Shop, College Park, MD.
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guide to self-medication. The reader is advised to discuss the information
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practitioner and to check product information (including package inserts)
regarding dosage, precautions, warnings, interactions, and contraindications
before administering any drug, herb, or supplement discussed