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What is Conjunctivitis?


Conjunctivitis is a common eye condition which causes inflammation of the conjunctiva, or the thin layer of tissue that covers the front of the eye, and the inside of the eyelid. Conjunctivitis is often referred to as 'pink eye' or 'red eye'. It usually affects one eye initially before spreading to the other within a few hours. Symptoms include:

  • Red or bloodshot eyes
  • Itching eyes
  • Discharge from the eyes which may be thick and sticky in the morning
  • Swelling of the eyes
  • Soreness and irritation
  • Burning sensation
  • The feeling of something in your eye

Conjunctivitis Causes

Conjunctivitis is caused by one of three things. An allergic reaction, known as allergic conjunctivitis, bacterial or viral infection which is known as infective conjunctivitis or an irritant (such as shampoo) which is known as irritant conjunctivitis. Infective conjunctivitis can be caused by STIs such as chlamydia which may take several months to clear.

Your risk of conjunctivitis may be higher if you:

  • Have diabetes or another condition that weakens your immune system as you may be more prone to infections
  • Have blepharitis (which is inflammation of the rims of the eyelid) which can be caused by bacteria which can cause conjunctivitis
  • Are taking corticosteroids (steroids) which can weaken your immune system and make you more prone to infection
  • Have recently had a cold or an upper respiratory tract infection
  • Have been in a crowded place and may have come into contact with harmful bacteria or irritants
  • Are old or young as conjunctivitis is more common in the elderly and children. This may be because of a weaker immune system and because children often come into contact with infections at school

Treatment of Conjunctivitis

Symptoms of conjunctivitis usually clear up within a week or two so treatment isn’t usually needed. Self-care such as a hot or cold compress can help alleviate symptoms until it improves on its own. However if you do need treatment the type will depend on the cause of the conjunctivitis.

Irritant Conjunctivitis will go away when the irritant is removed. If it is caused by shampoo or the chlorine in swimming pools an eye bath can alleviate symptoms by removing the irritant. If it is caused by an eyelash scratching your eye, once the eyelash is removed your eye should heal and become less sore.

Allergic conjunctivitis is usually treated with anti-allergy medications such as antihistamines and eye drops. To avoid future flare ups it is best to avoid the allergen as much as possible.

Bacterial conjunctivitis usually clears up by itself without treatment. If there is no improvement after approximately three days topical antibiotics may be needed as directed by your GP.

Complications of Conjunctivitis

There can be some complications with infective or bacterial conjunctivitis, but these are usually only serious in premature babies. Possible complications include:

  • Septicaemia commonly known as blood poisoning
  • Meningitis an infection in the meninges or the protective layer of cells around the spinal cord and brain
  • Otitis media an ear infection usually short term which affects approximately 1 in 4 children who have had infective conjunctivitis due to the haemophilus influenzae bacteria
  • Cellulitis an infection in the deep layer of the skin and tissue which causes inflammation and soreness in the surface layer of skin, it is usually treated with antibiotics

Conjunctivitis can cause keratitis which is a condition which causes the cornea (front of the eye) to become swollen. This can cause pain, irritation, sensitivity to light and ulcers to form on the cornea. If left untreated these ulcers can cause scarring on the cornea and may permanently damage your vision.

Giant Papillary conjunctivitis can happen when contact lenses irritate your eyes or when the proteins in your tears bind to the surface of the contact lens. This causes itching, irritation, redness, mucus discharge and fluid sacs developing in the upper lining of the inner eyelid.

Neonatal conjunctivitis

In newborn babies infective conjunctivitis can lead to a severe and quickly developing eye infection. Without treatment this can lead to damage to the child’s sight so it is very important to seek treatment as soon as possible. If your child is diagnosed with infective conjunctivitis you will be referred to a specialist for treatment. These complications are unlikely and most babies make a full recovery from infective conjunctivitis.

Conjunctivitis FAQs