What is conjunctivitis?
Conjunctivitis, or ‘pink eye’, is a condition where the white part of the eye becomes pink or red. This is due to inflammation of the eye’s clear outer layer (known as the conjuctivae) and the inside of the eyelid.
Conjunctivitis can be highly contagious and it is important that a doctor, optometrist or pharmacist diagnoses the exact cause to ensure the right treatment can be given.
What are the symptoms of conjunctivitis?
The main symptom of conjunctivitis is red or pink eyes.
If it’s bacterial conjunctivitis, there will often be yellow or green discharge from the eyes, which can make the eyelids stick together. One or both eyes might be affected.
If it’s viral or allergic conjunctivitis, the discharge is likely to be clear. You might also have hay fever symptoms like an itchy nose and sneezing.
If you have conjunctivitis, you might also:
- have tears
- have puffy eyes
- have a gritty sensation in your eye
- have a discharge, usually yellow or green, and crusty lashes, usually worse on waking
- have itchy or burning eyes
- be sensitive to light
- have some vision loss or pain (if this is the case, see a doctor or optometrist straight away)
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What causes conjunctivitis?
Conjunctivitis can be caused by:
- bacterial infection
- viral infection
- irritants such as dust or chemicals
- a foreign body (such as sand or a small piece of rock) in the eye
- a blocked tear duct (in babies)
Conjunctivitis caused by viral or bacterial infection is highly contagious.
When should I see my doctor?
Whenever you have conjunctivitis with any other symptoms, see your doctor if it doesn’t improve within hours.
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How is conjunctivitis diagnosed?
Your doctor will talk to you about your symptoms and will examine you, especially your eyes.
They might also take a sample of the secretions from your eye.
How is conjunctivitis treated?
The treatment for conjunctivitis depends on the cause.
Viral infections improve without treatment, but bacterial infections require antibiotic eye drops. It can be difficult to tell them apart.
Allergic conjunctivitis is treated with antihistamine drops or tablets, and conjunctivitis due to irritants may be helped by anti-inflammatory drops.
If you have a foreign body in your eye, your doctor will need to remove it.
Can conjunctivitis be prevented?
People with conjunctivitis should try not to touch their eyes, and should wash their hands regularly. This will reduce the risk of it spreading.
People who use contact lenses should change them regularly.
Those who work with an irritant or in a dusty environment should wear eye protection. Learn more here about eye care.
While adults can develop conjunctivitis, it is much more common among children. It is often contagious. Make sure you don’t share towels or face cloths, and stay away from preschool, school or work until the discharge from the eyes has stopped.
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Last reviewed: December 2019