Thumbnail image of: Conjunctivitis: Illustration

Viral or Bacterial Conjunctivitis (Pinkeye)

What is conjunctivitis?

Conjunctivitis is redness and swelling of the clear membrane that lines the inside of your eyelids and covers the white of your eye. This membrane is called the conjunctiva. This redness and swelling is also called pinkeye.

What is the cause?

This type of conjunctivitis is an infection caused by viruses or bacteria. These germs can be spread easily by coughing or sneezing, or by touching something with your hands and then touching your eyes. It can also be caused by improper cleaning of soft contact lenses.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Red, itchy, swollen or scratchy eyes
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Pus or watery discharge, which can cause crusty eyelashes

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms, medical history, and activities, and examine your eyes. He or she will also check for enlarged lymph nodes near your ear and jaw, which may be a sign of an infection in your body. A sample of the pus from your eye may be sent to a lab to check for the cause.

How is it treated?

Viral conjunctivitis will usually go away on its own without treatment. However, your healthcare provider may prescribe eyedrops to help control your symptoms. Antihistamine pills may also relieve the itching and redness. Viral conjunctivitis usually gets worse and then gets better in 3 to 10 days. If only one eye is affected at first, the other eye may become infected later. Usually, if both eyes are affected, the first eye has worse conjunctivitis than the second.

For bacterial conjunctivitis, your healthcare provider will prescribe antibiotic eyedrops. With antibiotics, the symptoms should improve in a couple of days. It is important to avoid close contact with people until you have used the antibiotics for 24 hours and your eye does not have a lot of pus.

If you wear contact lenses, your provider may tell you to stop wearing them until your infection is gone. Wearing contacts while you have conjunctivitis may damage your cornea, which is the clear outer layer on the front of your eye, and cause severe vision problems. Your provider may ask you to throw away your current contact lenses and lens case.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment your healthcare provider prescribes. Ask your healthcare provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

How can I help prevent conjunctivitis?

To keep from getting conjunctivitis from someone who has it, or to keep from spreading it to others, follow these guidelines:

  • Wash your hands often. Do not touch or rub your eyes.
  • Never share eye makeup or cosmetics with anyone. When you have conjunctivitis, throw out all eye makeup you have been using.
  • Never use eye medicine that has been prescribed for someone else.
  • Do not share towels, washcloths, pillows, or sheets with anyone. If one of your eyes is affected but not the other, use a separate towel for each eye.
  • Avoid swimming while you have conjunctivitis.
  • Avoid close contact with people until your symptoms improve. Depending on your job, you may be asked to take some time off from work.
Reviewed for medical accuracy by faculty at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins. Web site:
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-27
Last reviewed: 2014-10-27
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
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