Viral conjunctivitis

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at November 11, 2016
StartDiseasesViral conjunctivitis

Viral conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, is a contagious infection that causes an itching sensation and eye watering. The infected eye will be reddish in color, ranging anywhere from light pink to deep red. In most cases, viral conjunctivitis is not a serious condition and will clear up on its own within a week.


Definition & Facts

Viral conjunctivitis affects the conjunctiva, a thin layer of tissue that covers the whites of the eyes. Viral conjunctivitis often appears alongside a common cold or other medical conditions such as measles, chickenpox, or mumps.

Pink eye is much more common among children, as they are more vulnerable to eye infections. Pink eye "epidemics" are common in schools and day care centers. It is estimated that almost everyone gets pink eye at some point in their life.

Symptoms & Complaints

Viral conjunctivitis will start off with one eye becoming pink and itchy. Itching it will cause symptoms to worsen. The eye will begin to tear up and leak periodically. Many patients say that pink eye feels like they have something in their eye and they cannot get it out.

Viral conjunctivitis can spread to the other eye, particularly if a finger that touched the affected eye rubs the other one. In some cases, pink eye appears along with swollen lymph nodes in front of the ear. Vision might become blurry, especially after itching an eye. The eye might have a bit of a burning sensation and could be sensitive to bright lights.

It is quite common for the eye to emit discharge during sleep and the patient will wake up with crust on their eyelids and eyelashes. During their waking hours, the eye of the patient might emit a white or greenish discharge.

Those who get blurry vision should visit a doctor right away. In very rare cases, even after the condition clears up, the patient might have slight visual issues with halos in bright light for up to two years. Certain types of pink eye can actually scar the cornea and cause permanent vision problems. If blisters appear on the skin, this might indicate that the pink eye is caused by the herpes simplex virus


Viral conjunctivitis is commonly caused by or linked to upper respiratory infections or a sore throat. Because it is highly contagious, most people acquire it through contact with someone who has the condition. It can be transferred through anything that contacts the eye such as fingers, towels, and eye grooming products. Those who have weakened immune systems are more likely to get it. Frequently it is transferred from one child to another through sneezing and not using a tissue. This is why sanitizing products should be used frequently in classrooms.

There are other kinds of conjunctivitis aside from viral conjunctivitis. Certain types of conjunctivitis can be caused by bacteria including sexually transmitted diseases. It can also be caused by allergies to certain types of shampoo or chlorine in a swimming pool.

Diagnosis & Tests

It is recommended that those who are showing severe symptoms should visit their eye doctor. The doctor will inspect the eyes and might use a q-tip or cotton to absorb a bit of fluid from an eyelid to examine in a lab.

The physician will need to determine if the conjunctivitis is caused by a viral infection, bacterial infection, or a noninfectious source. Diagnosis can be complicated by the fact that there are certain serious conditions that cause symptoms similar to pink eye, including glaucoma, so the doctor needs to rule those out in order to arrive at a proper diagnosis.

Some patients might have their eyes stained with fluorescein which are then examined with a special lamp. When pink eye appears in adults, it is sometimes linked to herpes, so the doctor may need to test for that as well.

Treatment & Therapy

Viral conjunctivitis is often linked to the same viruses that can cause a cold. As with a cold, pink eye generally lasts less than a week. Because it is extremely contagious, a patient needs to wash their hands frequently, especially when cooking or handling food.

Patients who wear contact lenses should not wear them and wear eyeglasses until the conjunctivitis goes away. It is recommended for the patient to apply a cold compress to provide relief and to avoid itching it at all costs. Patients with severe cases of pink eye might be prescribed a corticosteroid by an ophthalmologist. If a newborn baby gets conjunctivitis, a doctor needs to be consulted immediately as it could affect their vision for the rest of their lives.

Avoiding smoke and dirt is important for recovery, and patients should refrain from wearing eye makeup. Patients can buy over-the-counter eye drops that can help remove the feelings of itching and burning. If only one eye is infected, the patient should not use the drops on both eyes as it might actually spread the infection. It is very important to remain aware of how contagious the condition is.

Washing the eye frequently in the shower or with a clean washcloth can help keep the eye from getting worse and can also alleviate discomfort.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Viral conjunctivitis spreads to other people very easily, so it is important for those who have acquired it to avoid contact with others. Kids should stay home and not go to school until their symptoms have cleared up completely. People should not share eye makeup with others and they should never try on someone else's contact lenses.

Many physicians believe that contact lenses are a magnet for pink eye and they recommend that patients wear eyeglasses or to use disposable contact lenses rather than permanent ones. It is also recommended to practice good hygiene and to avoid sharing towels with other people. Washing hands frequently and using hand sanitizer goes a very long way in preventing an outbreak of pink eye.