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Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the lining of the eye and eyelid.

Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the lining of the eye and eyelid.
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Conjunctivitis (pink eye)

5-minute read

Key facts

  • Conjunctivitis is sometimes known as ‘pink eye’ or ‘sticky eye’.
  • Conjunctivitis is a common condition where the white part of the eye becomes pink or red. One or both eyes may be watery, sore or itchy, sometimes with sticky white or yellow discharge.
  • Conjunctivitis can be caused by bacterial or viral infection, allergy, or irritants such as dust or chemicals.
  • Your doctor or optometrist can tell you the likely cause of your conjunctivitis, if it’s contagious, and the best treatment for your type of conjunctivitis.

What is conjunctivitis?

Conjunctivitis, sometimes known as ‘pink eye’ or ‘sticky eye’, is a common condition where the white part of the eye becomes pink or red. One or both eyes may be watery, sore or itchy, sometimes with sticky white or yellow discharge. This is due to inflammation of the eye’s clear outer layer (known as the conjuctiva) and the inside of the eyelid.

Allergic conjunctivitis may be seasonal, or triggered by specific allergens, for example, pollen or animal dander. Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis can be highly contagious and it is important that a doctor, optometrist or pharmacist diagnoses the exact cause to ensure you get the right treatment.

What are the symptoms of conjunctivitis?

The main symptom of conjunctivitis is red or pink eyes, often with itching, watering or discomfort.

If you have bacterial conjunctivitis, you may have yellow or green sticky discharge from the eyes, which can make the eyelids stick closed together, especially when you wake up from sleep.

If you have viral conjunctivitis, one or both eyes might be affected, and the discharge is likely to be clear.

If you have allergic conjunctivitis, both eyes are usually affected with a clear discharge, and you might also have hay-fever symptoms, such as an itchy nose, watery eyes and sneezing.

If you have conjunctivitis, you might also:

  • have tears
  • have puffy eyes
  • have a gritty sensation in one or both eyes
  • 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)

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

Should I keep my child home from school?

Here’s a list of common childhood illnesses, including conjunctivitis, and their recommended exclusion periods.

What causes conjunctivitis?

Conjunctivitis can be caused by:

How did I catch conjunctivitis?

You can catch viral and bacterial conjunctivitis from direct contact with eye discharge from a person with conjunctivitis. You can also catch it from contact with objects that were contaminated with infectious eye secretions, such as towels, face washers and tissues.

Allergic conjunctivitis is caused by exposure to allergens such as dust mite, pollen, animal dander, mould spoors and occasionally foods or food additives. It isn’t contagious so it can’t spread from person to person.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have symptoms of conjunctivitis, you should see your doctor to find the cause of your conjunctivitis, and the best treatment for your type of conjunctivitis.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — Our Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

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 discharge from your eye.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use our Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How do I treat conjunctivitis?

The treatment for conjunctivitis depends on the cause. For all types of conjunctivitis, it’s helpful to wash the eye gently several times a day with clean cotton wool soaked in warm tap water.

Viral infections improve without other special treatment.

Bacterial infections may require antibiotic eye drops or ointment. It’s important to keep applying the medicine for several days after your symptoms have improved.

If you wear disposable contact lenses and have bacterial or viral conjunctivitis, you should throw away any lenses you have been using and replace you contact lens case.

If you wear ‘extended-wear’ contact lenses, clean them according to the package directions, You should avoid using contact lenses for at least a week after your symptoms have resolved.

Replace any eye makeup or eyelash extensions used right before or during an infection.

Allergic conjunctivitis is treated with antihistamine drops or tablets. Sometimes your doctor might suggest tests to help you find the allergic trigger.

Can conjunctivitis be prevented?

People with conjunctivitis should try not to touch their eyes and should wash their hands regularly with soap and warm water and use a separate towel. This will reduce the risk of spreading conjunctivitis from one eye to the other, and between people.

People who use contact lenses should change them regularly and avoid wearing them while bathing or swimming.

Those who work with an irritant or in a dusty environment should wear eye protection. Learn more about eye care.

While adults can develop conjunctivitis, it is much more common among children. Conjunctivitis is often contagious, so if you are affected, don’t share towels or face cloths, and stay away from preschool, school or work until the discharge from the eyes has completely stopped.

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Last reviewed: May 2022

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