October 16, 2023

Conjunctivitis is the name for inflammation of the conjunctiva, which is the thin layer of tissue on the inside of the eyelids that covers the white part of the eye. It is also known as pink-eye and is often caused by viruses; for example, one of the varieties that causes the common cold, though it can be caused by bacteria (bacterial conjunctivitis) or allergy (allergic conjunctivitis). When a virus causes pink eye, it is known as viral conjunctivitis. Viral conjunctivitis is common and usually occurs in one eye and then spreads to the other.

How Long Does it Last?

Most cases of viral conjunctivitis are mild and clear up on their own within a couple of weeks without any specific treatment. Applying warm and cold compresses, washing eyes with water and a clean cloth or sterile pad, and using over-the-counter eye drops, also known as lubricating eye drops or artificial tears, may help to relieve symptoms. However, antiviral medications may be suggested for more severe cases of viral conjunctivitis. Antibiotics do not help treat viral conjunctivitis.

Usually, people recover entirely, and viral conjunctivitis does not cause any risks or complications. However, cases caused by other viruses, like herpes simplex, the cold sore virus, or varicella-zoster, which causes chickenpox and shingles, can be severe and may cause lasting eye problems if not treated effectively.  Furthermore, if viral conjunctivitis happens in newborn babies or individuals with weakened immune systems, including those who have HIV or are undergoing treatment for cancer, it can be severe, and medical attention should be sought without delay.

Symptoms of Viral Conjunctivitis

  • Redness or pinkness in the white part of the eye(s)
  • Swelling of the conjunctiva (the thin layer that lines the white part of the eye and the inside of the eyelid) and eyelids
  • Increased tear production
  • A sensation of grittiness or mild pain, discomfort
  • Itching, irritation, and burning sensation
  • Discharge (pus or mucus)
  • Crusting of eyelashes or eyelids, especially in the morning
  • Contact lenses that feel uncomfortable and do not stay in their place

Mainly, viral conjunctivitis causes mild symptoms that do not affect a person’s vision other than causing slight blurriness when discharge has built up on and around the eye. Depending on the type of virus causing the infection, there may be additional signs or symptoms, or only one eye may be affected. One affected eye is called unilateral conjunctivitis.

Causes of Viral Conjunctivitis

The most common cause of viral conjunctivitis is infection with adenovirus, the group of viruses that cause the common cold and several other upper respiratory infections.

An adenovirus might cause conjunctivitis without causing any other symptoms in the body. However, in a few cases, adenoviral conjunctivitis may manifest as:

  • Pharyngoconjunctival fever: It is common, mild, and primarily seen in children and young adults who have recently had a cold or respiratory infection. Symptoms may include sore throat, fever, and headache.
  • Epidemic keratoconjunctivitis: This is less common, can be severe, affects the front of the eye (cornea), and may cause long-lasting vision problems. Also known as viral keratoconjunctivitis.

Rare causes of viral conjunctivitis include:

  • Enteroviruses
  • Herpes simplex eye infections, which usually affect only one eye
  • Herpes zoster ophthalmicus, associated with shingles
  • Molluscum contagiosum, also known as water warts
  • Measles
  • Mumps
  • Rubella, also known as German measles
  • Infectious mononucleosis
  • HIV

Some of the above causes, such as herpes simplex and herpes zoster, can be severe, and an eye doctor can refer a person for specialist treatment to prevent complications.

Treatment for Viral Conjunctivitis

Several home remedies and over-the-counter treatments may help to relieve the discomfort caused by viral conjunctivitis, including:

  • Applying a cold or warm compress, a clean cloth that has been soaked in water, to the eye
  • Gently clean discharge from the eye using a clean cloth/towel, sterile pad, or cotton wool soaked in water
  • Applying lubricating eye drops to the eye is called artificial tears and is available without a doctor’s prescription. Care must be taken to not use the drops in the other eye if only one eye is infected.
  • Applying antihistamine/decongestant eye drops, which are available without a doctor’s prescription, may help to reduce irritation of the eye(s)
  • Avoid the use of contact lenses until the eye infection has cleared.

Antibiotics are not recommended to treat viral conjunctivitis, as they are ineffective against viruses and bacteria.

Prevention of Viral Conjunctivitis

Eye care is an important aspect of preventing viral conjunctivitis, including:

  • Avoid rubbing and touching the infected eye.
  • Maintain good hygiene, such as washing your hands every hour with soap and water or using sanitizer.
  • Clean your spectacles
  • Wash any discharge from your eyes using a clean cotton ball twice a day. Throw away the cotton ball and clean your hands with warm water and soap afterward.
  • Wash your hands properly after applying ointment or eye drops to the eye
  • Don’t share cosmetics, eye drops, contact lenses, towels, or other personal items.

When to Seek Medical Help?

It is not necessary to go to a doctor for viral conjunctivitis. Generally, you can treat the symptoms at home until they go away on their own. But you should not hesitate to consult a doctor if you have any concerns.

Mild cases of viral conjunctivitis often clear up within roughly 1 to 3 weeks without any specific medical treatment. However, some symptoms can be a sign of an eye disease, such as ulcers and inflammation of the cornea (keratitis), which can result in permanent vision loss.

Call your healthcare provider if you are experiencing problems given below:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Blurry vision
  • Eye pain and redness
  • If it’s feel like there is something stuck in the eye
  • The large amount of discharge from the eye
  • Worsening symptoms
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