Conjunctivitis can make you miserable. Not only does it make the skin around your eyes itchy and sore, but your eyes look like two flaming beacons.

Conjunctivitis (inflammation of the conjunctiva) affects millions of North Americans. The conjunctiva is the transparent outer protective layer of the cornea where the eye is in physical contact with the outside environment. Irritation is characteristically associated with reddening of the white part of the eye or sclera. There can also be itching, most common with hayfever and a discharge, which may be sticky and gritty.

Concerns about the prolonged use of antibiotics or corticosteroids and their relative ineffectiveness have lead to reassessment of the use of herbs for conjunctivitis. What is most surprising is not that there are herbs that are effective for this condition, but just how many of them can be used both externally and internally. As eye infections due to viral causes become more common, pharmaceutical treatment is less appropriate. Viruses do not respond to antibiotics.

Conjunctivitis can accompany the common cold, staphylococcus infections, allergies, measles, herpes virus, irritation due to sunlamps, even intense reflection from snow. Further irritation can come from contact with wind, dust, smoke, chlorine in swimming pools and air pollution. Wearers of contact lens may review their cleaning methods if they find they are prone to inflammation and infection. Usually people experience conjunctivitis as an acute condition, however it may persist and become chronic due to continued exposure to irritants or inflammation.

Tired Eyes

Most people know what it’s like to have sore, strained or tired eyes, often after using computers all day. A simple remedy is to infuse two camomile teabags until the temperature is comfortable to the skin, squeeze out the excess water, place a bag over each eye then sit back and relax. You can make your own poultice from dried camomile flowers in the same way using 15 g of herbs to 250 ml of water.

The simplest method of applying herbs for conjunctivitis is to use an eye bath. These simple devices enable herbal washes to come into contact with the conjunctiva itself. It’s important to remember that when applying an infusion to the infected eye the water must be boiled first then allowed to cool to a comfortable temperature. The infusion must be well strained to remove any particles of herb.

Herbs that are effective for conjunctivitis include:

  • Eyebright–the flowers are anti-inflammatory and have an antihistamine action, making them useful in allergic conjunctivitis.

  • Camomile-anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antiseptic.

  • Goldenseal root–strongly anti-inflammatory and antiseptic.

  • Marshmallow root–a soothing demulcent

  • Marigold–(Calendula officinalis) is also anti-inflammatory and has antihistamine action.

  • Rose petals–a soothing astringent used as rosewater.

  • Plantain leaves–soothing and anti-inflammatory.

  • Elderflowers–best used as a distilled water for the eyes.

  • Raspberry leaves–astringent and antimicrobial.

  • Vervain–anti-inflammatory and healing.

  • Witch hazel–astringent and anti-inflammatory.

Infuse herbs at the rate of 15 g to 250 ml of boiled water. Application should be done twice daily.

These herbs can be used either on their own or in combination, with the exception of goldenseal, which is best used as five drops of the tincture in a tablespoon (15 ml) of distilled witch hazel. Between five to 10 drops of this mix are then added to a half-filled eye bath of previously boiled water and allowed to cool. This is a very effective remedy for conjunctivitis. The rest can be infused in boiling water and cooled.

The Inner Body

Treatment of conjunctivitis requires internal treatment at the same time. A tendency to infection and inflammation often reflects on a body’s resistance and congestion. In Chinese medicine the eye is considered to be connected to the liver and gall bladder networks. Many western herbs given to benefit the eyes are also liver herbs.

At the onset of conjunctivitis sufferers should drink plenty of fluids, especially herb teas. The Chinese use chrysanthemum and honeysuckle flowers which make a delicious tea. They also use selfheal flowers and bamboo leaves as a tea and also as an eyewash. Familiar herbs to use internally include:

  • Echinacea–anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, detoxifying and antimicrobial.

  • Goldenseal

  • Myrrh–for such bacteria as staphylococcus. It’s strongly antiseptic.

  • Garlic–antiseptic, antibiotic and antiviral.

  • Greater celandine herb–anti-inflammatory and cooling.

These herbs can be taken as tablets, capsules or tinctures at the recommended dose on the packaging. Daily supplement support should include:

  • Vitamin A at 7500IU

  • Vitamin B2 at 10 mg

  • Vitamin C at 3 g

  • Vitamin E at 400IU

  • Zinc at 25 mg

  • Fish oils

If the condition persists or occurs after a visit to a foreign country consult an experienced practitioner.

About the Author

Rowan Hamilton is a lecturer of botanical medicine at the West Coast Naturopathic Medicinal College in Vancouver, BC.