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Conjunctivitis Causes and Treatment

Updated on November 1, 2009

Conjunctivitis is a term that covers several different diseases. Literally, the word means an inflammation of the outer surface of the eye, and this is usually accompanied by pain or an itch, redness of the eye and often a discharge.

Any eye problem that does not settle rapidly should be seen by a doctor. Even simple conditions, if allowed to persist, may cause scarring of the eye surface and a deterioration in the most vital of our senses - sight.

There are two main types of infection causing conjunctivitis - viral and bacterial.

Viral conjunctivitis

Viral conjunctivitis is the most difficult form to treat. Doctors are unable to cure most viral infections, but there are some types that infect the eye surface that antiviral drops can control. Unfortunately, most viruses cause low-grade irritation, a clear sticky exudate and red eyes for several weeks until the body's own defenses overcome the infection. Soothing drops and ointment may be used, but time is the main treatment.

Bacterial conjunctivitis

The most common form of conjunctivitis is that caused by a bacterial infection of the thin film of tears that always covers the eye. These bacteria are very easily passed from one person to another as the patient rubs the eyes with a hand, then shakes hands, and the second person then rubs their eyes. It is obviously easy for all the children in a family or a school class to develop the infection one after another.

Bacterial conjunctivitis is characterized by yellow pus that forms in the eyes and may stick the eyelids together when waking. The eyes are bloodshot and they may be a little sore. It almost invariably involves both eyes. Once correctly diagnosed by a doctor, treatment is simple by using antibiotic drops or ointment on a regular basis until the infection clears. The drops only last a very short time in the eye and so must be used every two or three hours during the day. The ointment will last for longer, but may blur the vision, so is often used only at night.

Babies who develop recurrent attacks of bacterial conjunctivitis are often suffering from a blocked tear duct as well. Your tears are produced in a small gland beyond the outer edge of your eye. They move across the surface of the eye, and then through a tiny tube at the inner edge of the eye that ends in the nose. This is why you get the salty taste of tears in your mouth when crying. If the duct is too small in an infant, or is blocked by pus, the circulation of tears is prevented and infection easily results.

A blocked tear duct may be probed and cleared by a doctor if the conjunctivitis persists in a baby for several months, but most grow out of the problem.

Please Note:


  • The information provided on this page is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a registered physician or other healthcare professional.

  • The content of this page is intended only to provide a summary and general overview. Do not use this information to disregard medical advice, nor to delay seeking medical advice.

  • Be sure to consult with your doctor for a professional diagnosis and appropriate medical treatment.

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