Antibiotic Eye Drops Often Unhelpful for Pinkeye

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Doctors often prescribe antibiotic eye drops to people with conjunctivitis, or pinkeye, even though they are almost always ineffective, a new study found.

About 80 percent of cases of pinkeye are caused by a virus, and there is no treatment for viral conjunctivitis. Most bacterial conjunctivitis is mild and will get better in a week or two without treatment. Antibiotics are effective only in the much smaller number of cases that involve the bacteria that cause gonorrhea or chlamydia.

In a retrospective study of 340,372 people with conjunctivitis, 58 percent received prescriptions for antibiotic eye drops.

About 83 percent of people in the study were given a diagnosis by providers other than eye care specialists. Compared with people seen by an ophthalmologist, those who saw pediatricians, family practice doctors, internists and emergency room doctors were two to three times as likely to receive antibiotics. The study is in the journal Ophthalmology.

Unnecessary treatment with antibiotics is not just a waste of money. It disrupts the normal bacterial flora of the eye and can lead to the development of resistant strains of harmful bacteria.

“Mostly, we treat supportively,” said the lead author, Dr. Joshua D. Stein, an associate professor of ophthalmology at the University of Michigan. “We recommend cold compresses, artificial tears, mostly just to make the eye more comfortable. Also, it’s contagious, so wash your hands, change your bedsheets, don’t share towels.”