Conjunctivitis

About conjunctivitis

The two most common types of conjunctivitis are infective (viral and bacterial) and allergic conjunctivitis. Infective conjunctivitis makes up just over a third of all eye problems in the UK each year.

Types of conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis is categorised into three main types.

  • Allergic conjunctivitis.
  • Infective (viral and bacterial) conjunctivitis.
  • Irritant (chemical) conjunctivitis.

Illustration showing the different parts of the eye

Symptoms of conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis can affect one or both of your eyes. The symptoms of conjunctivitis include:

  • redness of the white of your eye
  • pain in your eye, such as a burning sensation, throbbing or aching
  • blurry vision caused by pus around your eye
  • pus in your eyes – this may cause them to stick together in the morning and be difficult to open
  • a gritty feeling in your eye that may cause an itching or burning sensation
  • watery eyes

If you have allergic conjunctivitis, you may have hay fever symptoms, such as sneezing, a runny, itchy nose and itchiness at the back of your throat.

If you have infective conjunctivitis, you may have cold-like symptoms, such as a fever and sore throat.

Some of these symptoms can be caused by problems other than conjunctivitis. If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP for advice.

Causes of conjunctivitis

Allergic conjunctivitis

You’re more likely to get allergic conjunctivitis if you already have allergies.

If you’re allergic to plant pollens that are released at the same time each year, you may get seasonal allergic conjunctivitis. All year round (perennial) allergic conjunctivitis can be caused by house dust mites and animal fur.

You may get a form of allergic conjunctivitis, called giant papillary conjunctivitis, if you use contact lenses and are allergic to them, or if you have had eye surgery. See our FAQs for more information.

Using eye drops and eye make-up can cause inflammation of your eyelids and is called contact dermatoconjunctivitis.

Viral conjunctivitis

Viruses are a common cause of conjunctivitis. The virus most often associated with conjunctivitis also causes the common cold (adenovirus). You may have infective conjunctivitis if you have a cold or have come into contact with somebody who is coughing or sneezing.

Bacterial conjunctivitis

You can get bacterial conjunctivitis in any of the following ways.

  • Coming into contact with somebody who already has conjunctivitis.
  • If you have an upper respiratory infection, such as sinusitis or a common cold. Your sinuses are air-filled spaces within the bones of your face that open up into the nasal cavity. Sinusitis is swelling of the sinuses that surround your nose.
  • Touching your eyes with unwashed hands.
  • Using eye make-up and facial lotions that are contaminated.

Neonatal conjunctivitis affects newborn babies and can be caused by a blocked tear duct or by an infection passed on by the baby’s mother if she has chlamydia or gonorrhoea when giving birth, even if there are no symptoms of infection. Neonatal conjunctivitis can cause permanent eye damage if it isn’t treated quickly. See our FAQs for more information.

Irritant (chemical) conjunctivitis

Chemical conjunctivitis can be caused by a number of things including:

  • toxic chemicals
  • chlorine in a swimming pool
  • air pollution
  • contact lenses and their cleaning solutions

Diagnosis of conjunctivitis

Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history.

Your GP may take a swab of your eye. This will be sent to a laboratory to be tested and help identify the cause of your conjunctivitis. He or she may also refer you to an ophthalmologist (a doctor who specialises in eye health), although this is very rare.

Treatment of conjunctivitis

Treatment of your conjunctivitis will vary depending on what caused it.

Self-help

If you use contact lenses, don’t wear them until your conjunctivitis has completely cleared up. It’s also important not to rub your eyes and to make sure you regularly wash your hands. Don’t share pillow cases, towels or go swimming until your conjunctivitis has completely cleared up.

If you have allergic conjunctivitis, try to stay away from or not use whatever is causing your allergic reaction. A cool compress, such as a facecloth soaked in cold water, may help to soothe your eyes.

Infective conjunctivitis usually settles without treatment within about two weeks. You may find it helps to wipe away any discharge from your eyelids and lashes with cotton wool soaked in water. Although infective conjunctivitis is contagious, you don’t necessarily need to take time off work and if your children have conjunctivitis, they can still go to school.

Medicines

If you have bacterial conjunctivitis, your GP may prescribe you antibiotic eye drops (or ointment for children). You can also buy these medicines over the counter from a pharmacist.

Antihistamine medicines or eye drops may help if you have allergic conjunctivitis. These will give you rapid relief from your symptoms. Your GP may also prescribe a type of medicine called mast cell stabilisers, in the form of eye drops. Mast cell stabilisers work by stopping allergy cells from releasing substances that cause swelling and inflammation. These are more effective for long-term relief of allergic conjunctivitis but may take a few days to start working. You can take antihistamines at the same time as mast cell stabilisers to give you immediate relief while you wait for the mast cell stabilisers to work.

Always read the patient information that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist or GP for advice.

Conjunctivitis caused by a virus usually clears up on its own without the need for medicine. This usually takes no longer than two weeks.

See our common questions for more information about ways to ease your symptoms.

 

Prevention of conjunctivitis

There are a number of ways you can prevent the spread of conjunctivitis. Some examples are listed below.

  • Change your pillow cases regularly.
  • Use clean towels and washcloths, and don’t share them.
  • Wash your hands regularly.
  • Avoid contact with people that have conjunctivitis.
  • Clean your contact lenses correctly.
  • Replace your eye make-up products regularly.
  • Try to not touch your eyes with your hands.

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