Conjunctivitis: Facts, causes and symptoms
What is conjunctivitis?
Conjunctivitis is inflammation of the thin, clear covering of the white of the eye and the inside of the eyelids (conjunctiva).
Conjunctivitis may sound scary to hear, but this common eye problem typically is easily treated. Moreover, with a few simple precautions, conjunctivitis can often be avoided. One type of conjunctivitis, though, can cause serious vision issues if it is untreated. See your optometrist if you are concerned about your conjunctivitis.
Anyone can get conjunctivitis, but office workers, store employees, pre-schoolers, school children, university students, teachers and child care workers are particularly at risk for the contagious types of conjunctivitis because they work closely with others.
Here’s what you need to know about conjunctivitis:
What causes conjunctivitis?
The primary types of conjunctivitis, based on cause, are:
Viral conjunctivitis. Caused by a virus, like the common cold. This type of conjunctivitis is very contagious, but usually will clear up on its own within several days without medical treatment.
Bacterial conjunctivitis. Caused by bacteria, this type of conjunctivitis can cause serious damage to the eye if left untreated.
Allergic conjunctivitis. This type of conjunctivitis is caused by eye irritants such as pollen, dust and animal dander among susceptible individuals. Allergic conjunctivitis may be seasonal (pollen) or flare up year-round (dust; pet hair).
The primary symptom of conjunctivitis is an eye that has a reddish/ pink appearance. Other symptoms of conjunctivitis eye depend on the type of conjunctivitis:
Viral conjunctivitis symptoms include watery, itchy eyes or sensitivity to light. One or both eyes can be affected. Viral conjunctivitis is highly contagious and can be spread by coughing and sneezing.
Bacterial conjunctivitis symptoms include a sticky, yellow or greenish-yellow eye discharge in the corner of the eye. In some cases, this discharge can be severe enough to cause the eyelids to be stuck together when you wake up. One or both eyes can be affected. Bacterial conjunctivitis is contagious, usually by direct contact with infected hands or items that have touched the eye (e.g. towels or face cloths).
Allergic conjunctivitis symptoms include watery, burning, itchy eyes and are often accompanied by stuffiness, a runny nose, and sensitivity to light. Allergic conjunctivitis affects both eyes but is not contagious.
As you would expect, the treatment of conjunctivitis depends on the type of conjunctivitis you have:
Viral conjunctivitis treatment
In most cases, viral conjunctivitis will run its course over a period of several days and no medical treatment is required. Applying a cold, wet flannel to the eyes several times a day can relieve symptoms of viral conjunctivitis.
Bacterial conjunctivitis treatment
Your optometrist or GP will typically prescribe antibiotic eye drops or ointments for the treatment of bacterial conjunctivitis.
Allergic conjunctivitis treatment
Allergy medications often can help prevent or shorten bouts of allergic conjunctivitis.
For these reasons, anytime you develop red, irritated eyes, you should call your optometrist immediately and schedule an eye exam.
9 conjunctivitis prevention tips
Now that you know the basics about viral conjunctivitis and other forms of conjunctivitis, what can you do to protect yourself and your kids from it?
Here are nine simple precautions you can take to significantly reduce your risk of getting conjunctivitis, since the arrival of COVID 19 you may find many of these infection prevention strategies familiar:
Never share personal items such as flannels, hand towels or tissues.
Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, and avoid rubbing or touching your eyes.
Wash your hands frequently, especially when spending time at school or in other public places.
Keep a hand sanitiser nearby and use it frequently.
Frequently clean surfaces such as worktops, bathroom surfaces, tap handles and shared phones with an antiseptic cleaner.
If you know you suffer from seasonal allergies, ask your doctor what can be done to minimise your symptoms before they begin.
If you wear contact lenses, follow your optometrist's instructions for lens care and replacement, and use contact lens solutions properly or consider switching to daily disposable contact lenses.
When swimming, wear goggles to protect yourself from bacteria and other microorganisms in the water that can cause conjunctivitis.
Before showering, remove your contact lenses to avoid trapping bacteria between your eyes and the lenses.
Despite these precautions, you or your child still may develop conjunctivitis.
If your child is affected, tell his or her teacher about the infection so extra steps can be taken to sanitise the classroom or day-care. Also, keep your child home until the contagious stage has passed.
Your optometrist will let you know when you or your child can be around others without risk of spreading contagious conjunctivitis — usually about three to five days after the diagnosis.
If your conjunctivitis doesn't clear up and because a red or pink eye can be a symptom of many different types of eye problems — some of which can be quite serious — see your optometrist.
Page published in March 2020
Page updated in August 2020