Pinkeye (conjunctivitis) is an inflammation or infection of the conjunctiva, the moist, delicate membrane that lines the inside of the eyelids and covers the whites of the eyes. Symptoms include redness of the eyes, itchi-ness or irritation, a gritty feeling in the eyes and watery eyes. In adults, pinkeye is most often a viral or bacterial infection. It can also be caused by allergies, chemical irritants in the eyes or the use of contact lenses, particularly extended-wear lenses. If you get pinkeye while pregnant, it won't affect your fetus.

Newborns can develop conjunctivitis if they're exposed to bacteria during birth. Bacteria from the mother's vagina can pass into the infant's eyes during birth. This condition is most often caused by the sexually transmitted bacteria that cause chlamydia or gonorrhea. Conjunctivitis in infants must be treated immediately to prevent serious eye damage and preserve sight.

To prevent eye infections, newborns are given silver nitrate eyedrops at birth. Irritation from the drops may cause a brief bout of pinkeye. It usually begins six to 12 hours after birth and clears up within two days.

Prevention and self-care for pinkeye

Pregnant women should make sure they have no active sexually transmitted disease that might affect their infant before birth or after delivery.

To help protect yourself from bacterial and viral conjunctivitis, follow these precautions, especially if someone else in your family has pinkeye:

• Keep your hands away from your eyes.

• Wash your hands frequently.

• Don't share washcloths, towels or pillowcases with anyone. Change these items frequently, and wash them in hot water and detergent after use.

• Replace your eye makeup containers and applicators regularly.

• Use and care for your contact lenses properly.

To soothe the discomfort of pinkeye, apply a compress — a clean cloth soaked in warm or cool water — to closed eyes. Warm water works well for bacterial or viral pinkeye, and a cool compress is best for pinkeye caused by allergies. These methods may provide some comfort, but pinkeye needs medical attention to rule out serious causes.

Medical care for pinkeye

Treatment for pinkeye depends on the cause. The bacterial form is treated with antibiotics, usually given as eyedrops or an ointment. Oral antibiotics may be used for certain types of bacteria. Conjunctivitis caused by a virus will disappear on its own after a few days.

Allergic conjunctivitis can sometimes be cured by avoiding the irritant causing the allergy. For example, if you're having an allergic reaction to a substance in a particular brand of contact lens solution, you may be able to solve the problem simply by switching brands.

Flushing out the eyes with water can treat conjunctivitis caused by some types of chemicals. Some cases of chemical conjunctivitis require immediate medical treatment, however. If you've gotten a chemical in your eye, flush the eye gently with cool, running water for at least 15 minutes. After covering the eye with a clean pad, go to a hospital emergency department.

If your infant has pinkeye caused by silver nitrate eyedrops, the signs will typically be very mild and should disappear within a couple of days. Talk to your baby's health care provider if they persist.

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