Conjunctivitis is an eye infection caused by either a virus or bacteria. The conjunctiva is the pink rim you see if you pull down your lower lid and extend onto the white eye. It's an area that often gets infected in children and usually goes hand-in-hand with a viral cold. Children may get a bacterial infection, usually starting in one eye and then spreading.
Commonly you experience watery eyes, and there might be a yellow or green discharge. The eyes may feel very sticky on waking, but this improves with a gentle cleanse. The pink rim appears red, and the whites of your eyes look a bit red too. You might be a bit red and swollen in the skin around the eyes. A viral infection usually affects both eyes, and vision may be a bit blurry until you've cleared the discharge. It's not usually very painful.
Allergic conjunctivitis is in response to an allergen – commonly pollen alongside other hay fever symptoms – but also can be caused by any face creams, hair dyes, nail varnish, pet dander, or anything in the environment that has caused a sensitivity. Eyes are usually profusely watery and puffy around them and may feel a bit gritty. You may get a runny nose or hives on other parts of the body. Treatment may help, such as anti-histamine eye drops or tablets, but it's usually mild and improves on its own within a day or two – quicker if you remove the suspected allergen.
Viral conjunctivitis is very easily spread between people, so it’s important to maintain good hand hygiene, avoid rubbing your eyes then touching anything or anyone, and keep your distance from people if you are coughing or sneezing. Bacterial conjunctivitis can also spread by direct contact and from one eye to another.
Allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious.
For most cases, gentle, thorough cleansing is enough to clear an eye infection. For children under the age of 2 years or for mild cases in adults, you may want to first try using freshly boiled and cooled water and a clean washcloth.
Gently wipe over the eyelids starting from the outer edge of the lash line with the eyelid closed and sweep inwards and downwards towards the inner corner near the nose. This can help clear crusting and debris in the eyes and eyelashes safely. Repeat every two to four hours for up to 48 hours, and a cool washcloth may also be useful to soothe itchy or irritated eyes.
Antibiotic eye drops or ointments are available on a prescription from your doctor.
Conjunctivitis usually clears up without any medication. See your doctor if symptoms haven't improved after a couple of weeks. Antibiotics are not usually required for conjunctivitis, but your doctor may consider them under certain circumstances, including if a sexually transmitted infection such as chlamydia could be the cause.
If you suspect an allergy is to blame, keep a symptom diary to identify the trigger and try antihistamine drops from the pharmacy.
If your vision is affected – it's consistently reduced in one eye, you feel very sensitive to light, lights look hazy, or there's wavy lines or flashing – you should seek urgent attention from your doctor, 911, or an Emergency Department. Similarly, if the pain is deep and intense, especially if you wear contact lenses, this is a reason to seek urgent attention.
If your baby is less than 28 days old and experiencing a red eye or discharge, see your doctor urgently for assessment.
If you feel well and your work does not require close contact with others, you can go to work with conjunctivitis. Your child can go to school or nursery if they are well. If you have reason to believe something more serious is going on with your eyes, you should prioritize seeking urgent medical attention.
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