Viral Conjunctivitis

Also known as Pink Eye, Viral Conjunctivitis is an infection of the outer layer of the eye, much like a cold.

Viral Conjunctivitis FAQs

Viral conjunctivitis is an infection of the outer layer of the eye (the conjunctiva). It is caused by many different viruses though usually a virus called adenovirus is the most common.  Adenovirus is a very common virus.  If it gets in one’s throat, it can cause a pharyngitis (sore throat); if it get in one’s intestines, it can cause diarrhea; and if it gets in one’s eyes, it can cause pink eye.

Viruses which cause conjunctivitis are very common and are easily spread.  Usually there is a history of being exposed to someone who has a cold or who has pink eye. Small children with coughing, sneezing, or runny noses are also an easy source of the virus. Additionally, if someone has the virus elsewhere in his or her body (one’s throat, for example) and gets the virus on his or her hand, the eye can then become infected if he or she touches the eye. The incubation period is anywhere from a few days to two weeks.  During this time, someone is very contagious but shows no signs of infection.

Viral conjunctivitis may be present in many ways.  One may have a mild burning or itching with some mild redness and watering, or one may have severe discomfort with swelling and redness and significant discharge.  There is no way to know how severe each individual case will become nor how long it will last.  Most people have some degree of redness, burning, and mucous discharge.  Crusting of the lids in the morning is also a very common symptom.  One may also notice a tender nodule near the ear on the infected side; this is a lymph node and is evidence that the body is fighting the infection.

Viral conjunctivitis usually starts in one eye.  About 60% of the time it will affect the other eye several days later.  The course of the disease may be very different between the two eyes.

For most people, the infection will last 10-14 days.  The infection is usually at its worst on days 4-6.  One is considered contagious as long as there are any signs or symptoms of infection.

NO. Antibiotics are only effective against bacteria.  Pink eye is caused by a virus.  There are no known drugs which can kill a virus; the body must fight off the infection itself.

Some doctors will give antibiotic drops or ointments for pink eye.  This is to prevent a secondary bacterial infection which may strike while the body is fighting the viral infection.  This is a very uncommon occurrence, and antibiotics probably should not be used if the doctor is sure one has a viral conjunctivitis.  One exception to this rule is if the infection is in a child.  In such a case it may be appropriate to use antibiotics.  Children usually do not have good hygiene and are likely to touch their infected eyes with dirty hands (“But Mom, my eye hurts”).  This increases the likelihood of a secondary bacterial infection.

Not much can be done as the body must kill the virus on its own.  To help with the symptoms, cool compresses can be used to relieve the swelling and the irritation.  There are also several eye drops which may also help with the symptoms.  Artificial tears may help keep the eyes lubricated and will help with the irritation.  Topical antihistamines/ decongestants may help with the redness and itching, but they may also make the eyes more irritated.  Prescription eye drops may also help if the symptoms are very severe, but these should be used cautiously and only under the care of an eye specialist as they may make the infection worse.

Do wash your hands often.  This will decrease the chances of getting the virus in your other eye (or in someone else’s).

Don’t share washcloths or towels or pillows with anyone.  This will keep you from passing the virus to someone else.

Don’t wear contact lenses when you are infected.  This will keep the eyes more comfortable and will decrease the risk of a secondary bacterial infection, which is very serious in contact lens wearers.

Do clean your contact lenses and contact lens cases thoroughly.  Throw away any disposable contact lenses which may be infected and enzyme all others.

Do throw out any eye makeup or eye drops which may have come in contact with an infected eye.  The virus may live a long time in these materials.

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