Conjunctivitis and contact lenses: everything you need to know

Woman rubbing her sore eyes

Conjunctivitis, also known as pink or red eye, is an eye condition that can affect anyone. Its symptoms can range from mild to needing medical attention, and while some variants are not contagious, others are. Here, we look at what conjunctivitis means for contact lens wearers, and how best to relieve and avoid these symptoms.

What is conjunctivitis?

Conjunctivitis is a condition that affects the eye. When the small blood vessels in the lining of your eye become irritated and swell, the membrane that lines the eye and the inside of the eyelids – the conjunctiva – becomes inflamed, causing eyes to look red and become irritated. Conjunctivitis can affect 1 or both eyes, and in some cases, is contagious.

There are 4 types of conjunctivitis:

Bacterial conjunctivitis: This type of conjunctivitis is caused by bacterial infection from streptococcus and bacteria related to sexually transmitted infections gonorrhoea and chlamydia. This strain is common in young children, who often pass it onto their parents. Though this type of conjunctivitis is not painful, it can cause eye damage if left untreated, and is very contagious.

Viral conjunctivitis: This type of conjunctivitis is a viral infection, and is airborne and highly contagious. Viral conjunctivitis is transmitted via coughing and sneezing, and often accompanies common respiratory infections, such as measles, the flu, or the common cold. Infection often starts with one eye, and moves to the other. Luckily, this type doesn’t need treatment and goes away on its own.

Irritation-induced Conjunctivitis: This type of conjunctivitis is caused 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 and contact lenses with UV protection), or from chlorinated water when you have been swimming.

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.

Symptoms of conjunctivitis

The following symptoms include:

  • 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 your eye(s)
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Blurred vision

Can I wear contacts if I have conjunctivitis?

If you are experiencing the symptoms of an eye infection, it's best to stop wearing contact lenses until the inflammation has eased. Wearing contacts during this time can be immensely uncomfortable, or may even prolong infection. If you are wearing dailies, bi-weeklies or monthlies when conjunctivitis symptoms appear, dispose of them immediately. Throw away your solution, and your contact lens case to prevent reinfection.

If you are suffering with recurring bacterial or allergic conjunctivitis, we would advise wearing daily disposable contact lenses, instead of monthlies or bi-weeklies, as they are more hygienic, and can be disposed of after each use, preventing further contamination or prolonged infection. We would recommend everclear ELITE, as these daily contact lenses are made with silicone hydrogel, which allows plenty of oxygen to reach the eyes, and retains water, which is perfect for eyes that may have become dry and sensitive from conjunctivitis.

Woman washing her hands under the tap

Can contacts cause conjunctivitis?

While contact lenses themselves cannot cause conjunctivitis, failure to keep lenses clean will lead to an increased buildup of bacteria and dirt which will increase the risk of infection. Make sure you're following your optician's advice for contact lens care and never share your contact lenses or lens case with others, and be sure to wash your hands regularly, particularly before beginning your contact lens routine.

Is it conjunctivitis, or a lens allergy?

In some cases, a user may be allergic to contact lenses. An allergic reaction to contact lenses has similar symptoms to that of conjunctivitis.

The following symptoms of a lens allergy are:

  • Itchiness and burning in both eyes
  • Watery eyes and a watery discharge
  • Minor swelling around the eyes
  • Sensitivity and discomfort

To relieve allergies, our optician advises switching to dailies, and using oral antihistamine and hayfever relief drops. Keep in mind that these drops should be used 20 minutes prior to putting your lenses in, and 20 minutes after taking them out. In addition to this, a cold compress in the evenings will help alleviate swelling and itching.

If you are wearing a new type of lens for the first time, and experiencing symptoms, stop wearing your contact lenses until you can speak with a GP, or your optician. If you are noticing a correlation between your use of contact lenses and an eye infection, then it is worth switching to a different type of lens or solution.

Can I treat conjunctivitis myself?

Those suffering from conjunctivitis symptoms can often clear up within a couple of weeks with over-the-counter eye drops, or from pharmacist guidance. Depending on the variant of conjunctivitis, antibiotics may need to be prescribed. Antibiotics will help treat bacterial or allergic conjunctivitis.

The below treatments will ease the majority of conjunctivitis symptoms, but should symptoms persist longer than 2 weeks of treatment, be sure to see your eye doctor. 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 these are signs of a more serious health condition.

The main treatment options for conjunctivitis are:

Woman administering eye drops
  • Antibiotics: these will be prescribed if you have bacterial conjunctivitis and will take the form of topical antibiotic eye drops, eyewash or tablets. Bacterial conjunctivitis can be treated with over-the-counter Chloramphenicol dispensed by a pharmacist, but will usually resolve in around 7-14 days without treatment. Note: Contact lenses cannot be worn while using Chloramphenicol.
  • Eye drops: antihistamine eye drops, or tablets can provide relief from allergies
  • Artificial tears: eye drops work to hydrate the eyes and soothe irritated, dry eyes
  • Cold 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
  • Warm compress: can help keep eyes clean and improve tear quality

Preventing conjunctivitis

While most people get conjunctivitis at some point in their life, some steps can be taken to prevent infection:

  • Don’t wear contact lenses for longer than the recommended amount of time
  • Ensure that contact lens solution and eye drops are replaced within the recommended amount of time
  • Should a family member have conjunctivitis, they should use a separate towel from the rest of the family until it has completely gone
  • Ensure that pillow cases are washed regularly
  • Avoid wearing makeup, and mascara in particular during this time to avoid contaminating lenses, as well as infecting your makeup products
  • Ensure that make-up and other products that come into close contact with the eye are not out of date