Conjunctivitis + Styes

What Is Conjunctivitis + Styes

According to the American Optometric Association, conjunctivitis (commonly called “pink eye”) is an infection of the conjunctiva, a layer of protective tissue that covers the inner eyelid and the white of the eye. Characterized by redness and inflammation, most notable in the whites of the eyes and the membranes on the inner part of the eyelids; conjunctivitis or pink eye can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection, as well as a number of irritants such as pollen, smoke, dust, and certain chemicals. Conjunctivitis is an extremely common bacterial infection, especially among children and individuals that work in highly contagious environments, such as health care settings and child care. Approximately 64% of bacterial conjunctivitis cases occur in individuals under 19 years of age.

A stye, or a hordeolum, is a small bump in the eyelid caused by the infection of an oil gland. A stye can cause a buildup of material at the site of the infection, leading to a larger bump known as chalazion. Chalazions may eventually interfere with vision if the infected bump becomes grows large enough. Styes are a very common occurrence, and most resolve on their own. Most people will develop a stye at some point in their life.

What Causes Conjunctivitis + Styes

Conjunctivitis is classified by the cause of the inflammation. The following are the types of conjunctivitis with their corresponding causes:

  • Allergic conjunctivitis, caused by relatively moderate allergic responses such as those produced by seasonal allergies.
  • Giant papillary conjunctivitis, caused by an allergic response due to the presence of a foreign body in the eye (such as a contact lens).
  • Bacterial Conjunctivitis, caused by a bacterial infection. The most common causes of bacterial conjunctivitis are staphylococcal and streptococcal bacteria.
  • Viral Conjunctivitis, caused by viral infection. The most common cause of viral conjunctivitis is exposure to the common cold virus. And, viral conjunctivitis is the most common type of conjunctivitis.
  • Opthalmia Neonatorum, a rare and severe form of conjunctivitis in newborns caused by exposure to chlamydia and/or gonorrhea bacterium in the birth canal.
  • Chemical Conjunctivitis, caused by the exposure to chemical irritants such as chlorine, chemical fumes, and smog.

A stye is caused by the viral or bacterial infection of an eyelid oil gland.

Risk Factors For Conjunctivitis + Styes

Both styes and conjunctivitis are caused by infections of the eye. The following factors can increase the risk of developing an eye infection:

  • Children are more likely to develop eye styes and conjunctivitis than adults.
  • Poor hygiene. Maintaining personal hygiene can greatly decrease the risk of developing an infection of the eye. Infrequent hand washing can greatly increase the risk of developing conjunctivitis and/or a stye when combined with frequent hand-eye contact. Washing one’s face and regularly changing bed linens can also help to prevent the development of an eye infection.
  • Work environment. Individuals that work with children or in environments where contagious diseases can spread easily are more likely to develop eye infections.
  • Allergies. Seasonal or other allergies can increase the risk of eye inflammation and therefore increase the risk of eye infection.

Diagnosing Conjunctivitis + Styes

Most cases of conjunctivitis and styes can be diagnosed with a simple eye exam. According to the American Optometric Association, to rule out other causes of the symptoms or to confirm the diagnosis, a doctor may order the following tests:

Medical history/physical exam, to assess the patients risk of developing an eye infection and check for any other symptoms.

Detailed eye exam, including:

  • Visual acuity measurements, to assess vision impairment.
  • Evaluation of the conjunctiva and external eye tissue.
  • Evaluation of the inner structures of the eye, which should not be affected by a standard conjunctivitis/stye infection

Tissue cultures to closely examine the inflamed tissue. This can be especially helpful in cases where the infection is not responding to treatment.

Symptoms of Conjunctivitis + Styes

The following may be signs of conjunctivitis:

  • Itching or burning of the eyes
  • Sensation of sand/other particles in the eye that does not go away with eye wash
  • Redness/pinkness and visible blood vessels in the whites of the eyes.
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Eye discharge and/or excessive tearing
  • Light sensitivity

The following may be signs of a stye:

  • A bump on the eyelid
  • Redness or swelling of the eyelid
  • Pain in the eyelid
  • Changes to vision
  • Excessive tearing


Both conjunctivitis and styes are treatable conditions. Styes most often burst by themselves within several days or weeks of appearing and do not require medical attention. More severe cases of styes may require anti-inflammatory drops, creams, or injections.

The prognosis for conjunctivitis is largely dependent on the cause of the infection. Cases of bacterial conjunctivitis are typically resolved within three to four days of treatment with antibiotic eye drops/ointment. Since antibiotics are not helpful in clearing a viral infection, viral conjunctivitis can be more stubborn to resolve and may take two to three weeks to fully clear. Cases of allergic and chemical conjunctivitis may be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-lasting), depending on the source of the irritation. Most chronic cases of conjunctivitis can be managed with topical steroid eye drops or anti-inflammatory medications.

Living With Conjunctivitis + Styes

If you have conjunctivitis or a stye, the following tips can help you speed your recovery:

  • Keep your hands away from your face. As much as it may be tempting to touch or itch a sore eye, your hands are host to billions of bacteria. Touching your eyes can slow the recovery of your current infection, cause a new infection, or increase the likelihood that your infection could spread to others.
  • Seek treatment. While most cases of conjunctivitis/styes are easily treatable, some cases may cause serious complications if they are allowed to progress. If you experience symptoms of conjunctivitis/styes, contact your doctor.
  • Don’t stop your treatment without first talking to your doctor. Even if your symptoms go away, discontinuing treatment before the prescribed time can increase the risk of a recurring infection.
  • Throw away old cosmetics, especially those used around your eyes. Cosmetics can harbor millions of harmful bacteria. The older the products are, the more likely they are to be harmful.
  • Change towels and bedlinens frequently, to prevent either from harboring potentially infectious bacteria.
  • Be careful with your contact lens usage. Follow your doctor’s recommendations and don’t leave lenses in for longer than instructed.


Neither conjunctivitis nor styes are regularly screened for. The symptoms of both are typically recognizable and are most often first detected by patients. If you are experiencing symptoms of conjunctivitis/styes, contact your doctor immediately.


The following tips can help you to prevent conjunctivitis/styes:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly on a regular basis, especially after using the bathroom.
  • Keep your hands away from your face. Be especially careful to avoid contact with your eyes.
  • Be cautious about sharing eye products, contact lenses, or other eye-care items.
  • Use contact lenses as instructed. Bes sure not to leave them in past the instructed length of time.
  • Throw out old cosmetics, which can be breeding grounds for potentially harmful bacteria.

Common Treatment

Styes typically go away on their own within a few days to a week. If a stye becomes more infected and grows into a chalazion, it may require medical attention.

According to the American Optometric Association, the following treatments are available for patients with conjunctivitis:

Allergic conjunctivitis

The following treatments may help lessen the symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis:

  • Artificial tears, to remove the irritant and/or lubricate the eye.
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications
  • Antihistamines
  • Anti-inflammatory steroid eye drops (for persistent cases that do not respond to other forms of treatment)

Bacterial conjunctivitis

Bacterial conjunctivitis can most often be cured by the use of prescription antibiotic eye drops.

Viral Conjunctivitis

Since viral conjunctivitis will not respond to antibiotic treatment, most treatment plans focus on controlling the symptoms of the infection with things like cool compresses or, in more serious cases, topical steroid solutions.

Chemical conjunctivitis

Treatment for chemical conjunctivitis is largely aimed at flushing the chemical from the eye. Topical steroids may be prescribed to lessen inflammation. In the most serious cases, surgical intervention may be necessary to repair any serious damage to tissue.

Complementary and Alternative Treatment

The following alternative treatments may help prevent infection and/or manage the symptoms of an eye infection:

Vitamin C and Zinc, which may both help to boost your immune system and increase your body’s chance of fighting off infection.

Herbal therapies, including the use of the following herbs:

  • Eyebright
  • Chamomile
  • Fennel Seed
  • Marigold
  • Plantain
  • Grated Potato
  • Gingko biloba
  • Goldenseal

Homeopathic medicine, which uses extremely dilute concentrations of herbal remedies to aid the body in recovery. Homeopathic medicines used for the treatment of pink eye include:

  • Euphrasia
  • Argentum nitricum
  • Pulsatilla
  • Belladonna
  • Sulphur
  • Apis mellifica

Acupuncture. Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine in which small needles are inserted at points throughout the body in order to restore the flow of bodily energy. Acupuncture can help to both decrease bodily inflammation and boost the immune system.

Care Guide

If you are caring for someone with conjunctivitis or a stye, consider the following:

  • Encourage frequent hand washing and discourage touching the face. This applies to yourself, the patient you are caring for, and those around you. This will help to prevent the spread of infection as well as speed the recovery of the patient who is infected.
  • Wash towels and bedlinen, especially face cloths and pillow cases which come into frequent contact with the face and eyes.
  • Follow the doctor’s instructions when it comes to treatment. Consult the patient’s doctor before altering any part of the treatment.
  • Take an immune supplement, such as zinc or vitamin C. This will help to keep you healthy and able to care for your loved one.

When To Contact A Doctor

If you experience the following, contact a doctor:

  • Persistent pain, swelling, itching, or redness of the eye
  • Symptoms that worsen or do not go away with treatment
  • Impaired vision/sudden changes in vision
  • Bleeding or puss from the eye
  • Fever, aches, or chills

Questions For Your Doctor

To find a registered ophthalmologist, you can also visit The American Academy of Ophthalmology

Questions For A Doctor

You may want to ask your doctor the following questions:

  • What is the cause of my infection?
  • How long will my infection last?
  • Is there anything I can to do aid my recovery?
  • Am I contagious?
  • Am I at risk of developing another infection?
  • What treatment methods are available?
  • What are the side effects?
  • Will my vision be affected?

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