Conjunctivitis is a common condition affecting one or both eyes that causes inflammation of the thin layer of tissue – the conjunctiva – that covers the front of the eye and inner surfaces of the eyelids. You may also recognise it as being called pink eye.
What are the symptoms of conjunctivitis?
- Pink, bloodshot or puffy appearance
- A burning or gritty sensation in the eye
- Watery eyes
- Sticky or crusty eyelashes – you may feel like your eyes are stuck together when you wake up
Symptoms of conjunctivitis can present differently, depending on its underlying cause. Usually, the affected eye will look pink or bloodshot and perhaps puffy. You may also experience itchiness or a burning sensation.
Contact your optician or doctor immediately for appropriate advice if you experience: eye pain, light sensitivity, disturbed vision, or intense eye redness. These symptoms could be a sign of a more serious eye condition.
Types and causes of conjunctivitis
There are three general types of conjunctivitis: infective (either viral or bacterial), allergic and irritant.
This is the most common cause of conjunctivitis and happens most in adults. It’s often caused by the adenovirus, which also causes things like common colds and flu, and is very contagious. You’ll usually get watery eyes with this type, rather than the pus discharge more common with bacterial conjunctivitis.
This can be caused by a variety of bacteria, but it’s usually caused by bacteria found on your skin or from your nose or throat. This type is more common in children and is usually much milder than the viral type. You might also get bacterial conjunctivitis from someone else, touching your eyes with unclean hands, or using contact lenses that have come into contact with water or other infections.
Allergic reactions are another common cause of conjunctivitis. This can happen when things like pollen, animal fur, dust, make-up or other chemicals come into contact with the eye and trigger your body’s immune system to fight it off – which is what causes the inflammation.
Sometimes, conjunctivitis might develop after the eye comes into contact with something that irritates it, like shampoo, chlorinated water or a loose eyelash.
How is conjunctivitis diagnosed?
If symptoms are bothering you, get in touch with your optician, doctor or pharmacist. They’ll ask you some questions and take a good look at your eyes to determine whether you have conjunctivitis.
They’ll also be able to advise you on the best way to clear your symptoms and make you feel more comfortable.
Conjunctivitis in children (advice for parents)
Conjunctivitis is quite common in children, particularly in those under five, and is usually caused by an infection or allergy.
What should I do if my child has conjunctivitis?
Treatment isn’t usually necessary for children with conjunctivitis, so home treatment will usually do the trick. That involves gently cleaning the affected eye or eyes with cotton balls soaked in cooled, boiling water. It’s also important to make sure everyone in the household regularly washes their hands, and your child doesn’t share any towels or pillowcases to prevent it spreading to other family members.
If symptoms get more severe (eye pain, sensitivity to light, changes in vision, headache, vomiting, blisters on the skin around the eye) or last longer than two weeks, then you should take them in to see their doctor as soon as possible.
Can my child go to school with conjunctivitis?
Advice on this can vary by area but according to official advice there’s no need to take your child out of school if they have conjunctivitis. Just make sure to remind your child not to rub their eyes and to regularly wash their hands.
The only time it might be necessary to take them out of school is if there was a wider outbreak of infective conjunctivitis at their school. It’s also worth noting that some schools have policies in place around conjunctivitis, for example, staying off school for 24-48 hours – so it’s best to give them a call to check.
When should I seek advice?
You should take your child to see their optician, doctor or pharmacist if:
- They’ve had symptoms and sticky eyes for longer than two weeks
- They have increasing irritation or uncomfortable eyes for longer than two days.
You should seek immediate advice from your optician, doctor or local Accident and Emergency department if:
- They’re under four weeks old
- They have painful symptoms
- They’re very sensitive to light (photophobia)
- Their vision is blurry
- They have a rash
- You think there might be something in their eye
- They have a bad headache and keep being sick.
Conjunctivitis treatment: what help is available?
Treatment for conjunctivitis will depend on what’s causing it. In many cases, symptoms will usually clear up on their own after a couple of weeks, so treatment isn’t always necessary.
Other treatment options include:
There are a few things you can do at home to help make your eyes feel more comfortable:
- If you wear contact lenses, it’s best not to irritate your eyes any further, so avoid wearing them while you have symptoms and wear your specs instead.
- Lubricating or moisturising eye drops can help to soothe your eyes.
- You can gently wipe and clean sticky eyelids and lashes with some cotton wool soaked in warm water (cooled from boiling).
Antibiotic eye drops are sometimes given to people with more severe cases of bacterial conjunctivitis to help clear up the infection. You can also get this as an eye ointment instead if you struggle with eye drops.
Antihistamine eye drops or tablets might be prescribed for certain types of allergic conjunctivitis. This helps to stop the body from reacting to any allergens you’re sensitive to.
How do you treat conjunctivitis in a child?
Most children who develop conjunctivitis have the bacterial type, which usually clears away on its own after a few days or a couple of weeks. So the best thing to do is often with daily care at home. Using cotton balls soaked in cooled, boiled water, gently clean the eyes by wiping outwards from the bridge of the nose in one direction. Make sure to replace the cotton ball each time.
If your child gets more severe symptoms, then contact your doctor to get it checked out.
As conjunctivitis is often contagious, you can help to prevent it spreading by:
- Regularly washing your hands with warm soapy water
- Not touching or rubbing your eyes
- Not sharing towels, flannels or pillows – and regularly cleaning ones you do use
- Not sharing make-up with other people
- If you wear contact lenses, get in touch with your optician for advice. Unless directed otherwise, you shouldn’t wear your lenses until the symptoms have completely gone.