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The conjunctiva is a thin, transparent membrane that lines the inside of the eyelid and covers the white part of the eye (sclera). Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva. The three main types of conjunctivitis are infectious, allergic, and chemical. Infectious conjunctivitis, commonly known as "pink eye," is caused by a contagious virus or bacteria. Allergic conjunctivitis can be brought on by a reaction to pollen, cosmetics, animals, or fabrics. Chemical conjunctivitis is caused by irritants like air pollution, noxious fumes, and chlorine in swimming pools.

Symptoms

Common signs and symptoms of conjunctivitis are red eyes, inflamed eyelids, watery eyes, blurred vision, and a gritty or scratchy feeling in the eyes. With the infectious form, there may be a pus-like or watery discharge around the eyelids. Allergic conjunctivitis is typically itchy and watery.

Treatment

Certain forms of conjunctivitis can develop into a more serious condition that may harm your eyes and affect your vision. An optometrist can diagnose the form of conjunctivitis and recommend appropriate treatment.

Bacterial infectious conjunctivitis is usually treated with antibiotic eye drops and/or antibiotic ointment. Viral forms of infectious conjunctivitis are fought off by your body's immune system. Treatment for a viral infection is primarily supported with artificial tears and cool compresses; more severe cases may benefit from prescription anti-inflammatory eye drops or in-office treatment by an optometrist.

Symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis can be somewhat relieved by placing a clean facecloth soaked in ice-cold water over closed eyes, or with over-the-counter artificial teardrops. An optometrist can prescribe eye drops for allergies (steroids, antihistamines and mast cell stabilizers) to control and prevent both acute and chronic allergy symptoms.

The ideal treatment for chemical conjunctivitis is to remove the cause of the irritation. In cases where this doesn't work, prescription and over-the-counter eye drops are available.

Prevention

Infectious conjunctivitis is highly contagious, particularly among young children who may forget that their condition is contagious. To prevent transmission of infectious conjunctivitis, patients should: wash their hands frequently and thoroughly, including before and after applying eye medication; avoid touching their eyes; and avoid sharing pillows, towels, washcloths, or cosmetics with others. Small children should be kept at home until the condition has resolved.