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Conjunctivitis eye

Your guide to conjunctivitis (pink eye)

Conjunctivitis is a common condition where the conjunctiva (a thin membrane that lines the inside of your eyelid and covers the white of your eye) becomes inflamed.

Conjunctivitis is also known as "Pink Eye", due to the marked pink appearance of the conjunctiva. The eye's defense mechanism causes the blood vessels within the conjunctiva to dilate, which makes them more noticeable. This is so they can release infection-fighting cells; hence the name "Pink Eye".

The causes of conjunctivitis

The three most common causes of conjunctivitis are:

  • Bacterial (Staphylococcus Aureus, Streptococcus Pneumoniae, and Haemophilus influenza are common causes of bacterial conjunctivitis)
  • Viral (Adenovirus is the most common cause)
  • Allergic (Airbore Pollen, dust, pet hairs/skin)
Woman inserting contact lenses

Bacterial conjunctivitis

Bacterial conjunctivitis usually affects both eyes. It may cause red eye, a sticky discharge, and a gritty, irritable feeling. The eyelids can swell and stick together, particularly in the mornings.

Like all types of conjunctivitis, bacterial conjunctivitis is highly contagious. It can spread through contact with someone who has the infection, from contaminated surfaces or through sinus or ear infections.

Viral conjunctivitis

Viral conjunctivitis can be caused by a variety of different viruses. Adenovirus (responsible for the common cold) is the most common. It is extremely contagious and can be spread through sneezing and coughing, as well as contact with an individual.

This conjunctivitis can present itself with or without flu like symptoms (sore throat and high temperature) and in some cases the cornea can also become infected.

Symptoms of Viral Conjunctivitis can vary from mild to a full-blown infection with risk of permanent visual damage.

Symptoms include red eye, watery discharge, light sensitivity and discomfort. The eyelids and conjunctiva can appear slightly swollen. If the infection has spread to the cornea, you may also notice blurred vision.

Allergic conjunctivitis

Allergic Conjunctivitis is triggered by allergens such as pollen, dust and pet hair or skin. It can be seasonal, but for some it may occur all year round. It is commonly noted by people who already suffer from allergic conditions like asthma or hay-fever.

The main symptom noted with allergic conjunctivitis is red eye and an itching. There may be a slight discharge that appears stringy and clear.

Treatment of conjunctivitis

Treatment depends on the cause of conjunctivitis. Some cases of bacterial conjunctivitis clear within a week, without any form of treatment. Others may require antibiotic treatment from the GP or pharmacist. Antibiotics will not work against viral conjunctivitis cases. Viruses do not respond well to treatment, and in most cases they resolve untreated. In some severe cases you may be referred to a hospital eye clinic.

Artificial tears and lubricating ointments may help to relieve some discomfort.

Antihistamine drops or tablets can also help with allergic conjunctivitis, though removing yourself from the particular allergen can largely help relieve your symptoms.

You may be more at risk of infective (bacterial/viral) conjunctivitis if:

  • You have recently had a cold.
  • You have been in close contact with someone who is already infected with conjunctivitis.
  • You have blepharitis (inflammation of the rims of the eyelids), which can be caused by a bacterial infection.
  • You have a weak immune system.
Woman putting eye solution in her eye

Tips for dealing with conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis is highly contagious. It is important to wash your hands thoroughly after coming into contact with anyone who has it. Don't share towels or pillows with anyone with the infection.

If you have developed conjunctivitis or any of the symptoms listed above you will need to stop all contact lens wear and visit your optician. They will be able to identify the type of conjunctivitis you have, refer you to a medical practitioner if necessary, and offer treatment advice.