What is conjunctivitis?

A woman itching their eye, infected with conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis (pink eye or red eye) is the medical term for inflammation or swelling of the conjunctiva, the membrane that lines the eye and the inside of the eyelids. It occurs when the small blood vessels in the lining of your eye become irritated and swell, causing your eye to look red and feel gritty. Conjunctivitis can affect one or both eyes and makes them appear bloodshot and feel itchy/burning by producing pus that sticks to your eyelashes, causing blurred vision.

Some forms of conjunctivitis are contagious, so it's important to maintain good hygiene and eye health. This would include not sharing towels and other skincare products, and not touching your eye if you have an eye infection. If you wear contact lenses and you have symptoms of conjunctivitis, opticians advise you to take a break from your lenses and temporarily wear your glasses until you feel better.

Types of conjunctivitis

There are 4 main types of conjunctivitis inflammation:

Bacterial conjunctivitis: As the name suggests, bacterial conjunctivitis is a bacterial infection. This form of conjunctivitis can be caused by streptococcus, but also by the bacteria related to sexually transmitted infections gonorrhoea and chlamydia. Usually, this form of conjunctivitis isn't painful but may cause damage to the eyes if left untreated.

Viral conjunctivitis: Another common type of conjunctivitis that is highly contagious and a viral infection, as it's spread through airborne virus particles while sneezing and coughing. Viral infectious conjunctivitis can accompany common respiratory infections, such as measles, the flu, or the common cold when your immune system is weak. It normally starts in one infected eye, before moving to the other one, and can accompany symptoms like a runny nose and sore throat.

Conjunctivitis due to irritation: In this form of conjunctivitis, the conjunctiva gets irritated by external factors, such as a foreign body like a dust particle, too much UV light (this can happen if you go skiing without wearing sunglasses) or from chlorinated water when you have been in swimming pools.

Allergic conjunctivitis: This type of conjunctivitis develops as a reaction to particles that cause an allergic reaction. This can happen, for example, if you have hay fever or other allergens, such as dust mites, cats, dogs or other pets. Allergic inflammation of the conjunctiva can be seasonal or perennial, depending on the allergen that affects you.

Conjunctivitis symptoms

  • Itchiness and burning in one or both eyes
  • Watery eyes and a watery discharge
  • Swelling around the eyelids
  • Pink/red discolouration of the whites of your eye(s)
  • A gritty, dry sensation in one or both eyes
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Blurred vision

Diagnosing conjunctivitis

A healthcare professional or ophthalmologist can determine what type of conjunctivitis you might have and help you understand their treatment options. In some cases, it will be necessary to have a sample of the discharge from your eye in order to define the bacteria or virus involved and to understand if it's conjunctivitis or another eye condition like keratitis, inflammation of the cornea, or blepharitis, inflammation of the eyelids.

Ensuring you have a regular eye test is the best way to keep all eye conditions at bay - even if you don't have any conjunctivitis symptoms. An optician can check how your eyes respond to irritants and whether any changes in your vision would result in adjustments to your prescription. During an eye test, your eye doctor will check the overall health of your eyes and detect any underlying health conditions or other eye problems.

A woman applying eye drops

Contact lenses and conjunctivitis

If you wear contact lenses and you are experiencing symptoms of an eye infection, it's good to stop wearing them until the inflammation clears up. When you're able to return to your contacts, it's important to use a new pair: we'd recommend switching to daily contact lenses as they are hygienic and individually packed, giving you the freedom to take a break when you need to.

Daily lenses are disposed of after each wear, allowing you to start the following day with fresh, comfortable vision. If you'd like to stick to monthly lenses, make sure to use a new bottle of solution and a new, clean contact lens case. It's also important to dispose of any eye drop bottles you might have been using when experiencing conjunctivitis symptoms.

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Conjunctivitis treatment

For most people, conjunctivitis symptoms clear up within a couple of weeks without treatment, by using over-the-counter eye drops or getting advice from a pharmacist. Treating conjunctivitis depends on the cause of the inflammation: if you suffer from a bacterial infection you might be prescribed antibiotics, but those will not help against viral or allergic conjunctivitis.

The main treatment options for conjunctivitis are:

  • Antibiotics: these will be prescribed if you have bacterial conjunctivitis and will take the form of topical antibiotic eye drops, eyewash or tablets
  • Eye drops: antihistamine eye drops or tablets can provide relief from allergens
  • Artificial tears: they'll work to hydrate the eyes and soothe irritated, dry eyes
  • Warm compresses: can provide relief to itchy eyes when placed over closed eyelids
  • Cotton swab with warm water: can help remove excess discharge from your eye to make them feel more comfortable

Are your eyes still bothering you after 2 weeks of treatment? This can happen in more severe cases of conjunctivitis and it's definitely a reason to contact your GP. If you get other symptoms such as poor visibility, extreme light sensitivity, nausea or vomiting, then speak to a doctor as soon as you can, as they can be signs of a more serious health condition.

A man washing his hands in a sink

Conjunctivitis prevention tips

Anyone can develop conjunctivitis at any age, but you're more at risk if someone close to you develops an infection. These are some important things to watch out for:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water regularly - especially before touching your eyes and getting on with your contact lens routine
  • Don't share towels, pillowcases or washcloths, as contamination is a common cause of conjunctivitis
  • Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing
  • Don't share eye makeup or other skincare products
  • Make sure you're following your optician's advice for contact lens care and never share your contact lenses or lens case with others
  • Switch to daily disposable contact lenses, as they're easier to keep hygienic
  • Keep a bottle of hand sanitiser or Vision Direct Soap Sheets on you, and use regularly
  • When swimming, skiing or playing extreme sports, wear goggles to protect yourself from bacteria and other microorganisms that may cause conjunctivitis