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Medically reviewed by Alastair Lockwood on 16 March 2021
What is conjunctivitis?
Conjunctivitis or 'pink eye', is a common eye condition caused by inflammation of the conjunctiva. The conjunctiva is the thin layer of tissue, mostly transparent, consistency similar to a jelly fish, that covers the front of the eye, with the exception of the cornea.
What causes conjunctivitis?
Conjunctivitis can affect just one eye but typically affects both. It can result from infection or allergies.
Bacterial conjunctivitis- this is commonly caused by bacteria from your skin or respiratory system known as staphylococcal or streptococcal bacteria. Bacterial overgrowth in the presence of excessive meibomian oil secretions lead to an inflamed eye with sticky discharge. Using cosmetics/make-up that are contaminated can also cause bacterial conjunctivitis. Bacterial conjunctivitis can also result from sharing contact lenses.
Viral conjunctivitis- this can be a result of highly contagious viruses, sometimes associated with the common cold. Viral conjunctivitis can occur if you’re exposed to somebody with an upper respiratory tract infection.
Ophthalmia neonatorum- In new-born babies, conjunctivitis should be taken seriously. Some infections may be due to exposure to pathogens associated with sexually transmitted disease, such as Gonorrhoea and Chlamydia in the birth canal. Gonococcal infections can lead to perforation of the eye.
Chemical conjunctivitis (irritant conjunctivitis)- this is frequently caused by highly perfumed beauty products which can irritate the conjunctiva. If suspicious that this is the case, we recommend you stop using all products, and then reintroducing carefully to find out which one is the cause.
Can water cause conjunctivitis?
Avoid swimming in dirty and untreated water, as this can cause all types of infections.
Make sure to remove your contact lenses before swimming to avoid the risk of infection or irritation.
If you’ve had to wear your contacts while swimming, you should dispose of them immediately after.
Chlorinated water can also aggravate the eyes. It is important to rinse your eyes after you have gone swimming. Exposure to heavily chlorinated pool water can weaken the tear film that usually acts as a defensive shield for your cornea.
Chlorinated water weakens the defences that protect your eyes from bacteria, therefore making swimmers prone to eye infections. One of the most common eye infections from swimming is conjunctivitis or pink eye, which can either be viral or bacterial.
And, if you do have conjunctivitis, it’s best to avoid wearing contact lenses until the infection has fully cleared.
What are the symptoms of pink eye?
Symptoms of pink eye include:
- Itchy eyes
- A gritty feeling on the eyes
- A burning sensation
- Excessive tearing
- Swollen eyelids
- Increased sensitivity to light
- Eye discharge
- The colour pink in the whites of the eyes
How do you avoid getting pink eye?
- Avoid touching your eyes
- Wash your hands often and thoroughly with warm soapy water
- Don't share makeup or face creams
- Make sure your towels and pillowcases are clean and avoid sharing them
How long does it take for conjunctivitis to clear?
Irritant conjunctivitis should clear up once the cause has gone. Conjunctivitis caused by sexually transmitted diseases will take longer to clear up. Viral conjunctivitis can take up to three weeks to go away.
Do I need to see a doctor with conjunctivitis?
Your pharmacist will be able to give you advice regarding conjunctivitis; however, you should make sure you see your doctor if:
- Your baby has red eyes
- You wear contact lenses and have spots on your eyelids in addition to symptoms of conjunctivitis
- Your symptoms last for more than a couple of weeks
- You have a significant drop in vision
How is conjunctivitis diagnosed?
A doctor will consider the patient's history and symptoms and examine their eye before making a diagnosis of conjunctivitis. Often conjunctivitis can be mistaken for red eye due to the pink pigment which covers the white parts of the eye.
Various symptoms can help a doctor diagnose the type of conjunctivitis one has. As some symptoms are the same, it can sometimes be challenging to make a diagnosis. For this reason, your doctor may take a sample of your eye discharge to test in a laboratory.
How to treat conjunctivitis yourself
You can relieve the symptoms of conjunctivitis yourself by using cold compresses such as our Thera-Pearl Eye Mask. Cleaning your eyelids is also recommended for relieving symptoms of conjunctivitis. You can use our Eye Doctor Lid Wipes which are great for ensuring hygiene while on the go.
How do you get rid of conjunctivitis?
There are different treatments for conjunctivitis, depending on the type.
For example, viral conjunctivitis cannot be treated with antibiotic eye drops as it is not a bacterial infection. Instead, your body’s own immune system should fight this off. You may treat symptoms of viral conjunctivitis with artificial tears and pain killers.
Viral conjunctivitis will disappear once the body has fought off the germs. In rare cases of severe viral conjunctivitis, the cornea may get affected. Your doctor may prescribe steroid eye drops.
For those suffering from bacterial conjunctivitis, the doctor may prescribe a course of antibiotic drops for one or two weeks.
Anti-allergy medications such as antihistamines can treat allergic conjunctivitis. Symptoms usually disappear within a few days or weeks, depending on the severity of the outbreak.
You should avoid wearing contact lenses while you have conjunctivitis.
Stop infectious conjunctivitis from spreading
To prevent contagious conjunctivitis from spreading, you should make sure to:
- wash your hands thoroughly and often, using warm soapy water
- wash your pillows and face cloths using hot water and laundry detergent
- Avoid sharing towels or pillows
- Avoid rubbing your eyes
Quick links:A guide to red eyes
A guide to eye allergies
A guide to itchy eyes