Conjunctivitis is the inflammation or infection of the membrane that covers the surface of the inner eyelid and the front of the eye.

Conjunctivitis causes include a reaction to bacteria, viruses, allergy-provoking agents (like dust, pollen or animal hair and dead skin cells), irritants (a foreign object in the eye) and toxic agents, as well as underlying diseases in the body. In a baby, it can be caused by a blocked tear duct.

Commonly known as “pink eye”, the condition is usually not serious but is infection. It has a short duration, often resolving itself in a few days without medical treatment.

Take specific notice of conjunctivitis during pregnancy. Pregnant women are prescribed special eye drops as some products may not be suitable.

What are its symptoms?

Conjunctivitis symptoms will vary in severity and appearance. Although only one eye tends to be affected at first, symptoms usually affect both eyes within a few hours.

The most common symptoms include:

  • Redness
  • Itching or burning
  • Eye pain
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Tearing
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Drainage from the eye
  • Blurred vision

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor diagnoses conjunctivitis by asking about your symptoms and examining your eyes. Describe to your doctor how your conjunctivitis started, as this will help him/her diagnose which type it is and whether it needs to be treated.

Your doctor may take a sample of eye secretions from your conjunctiva (the thin, transparent tissue that covers the outer surface of the eye) for laboratory analysis if you have a very severe case of conjunctivitis or if you’ve had repeated infections.

It can be highly contagious for up to two weeks after symptoms begin, so an early diagnosis and treatment can protect people around you.

What are your treatment options?

Conjunctivitis treatment will depend on the cause and severity.

Cause-based treatment options include:

  • Bacteria: This type needs treatment with antibiotics.
  • Viruses: This type of conjunctivitis often results from the viruses that cause a cold. It should clear within one or two weeks. It does not need antibiotics.
  • Irritants: Use water to wash the substance from the eye for five minutes. Your eyes should begin to improve within four hours after washing away the substance. Seek urgent medical advice if the conjunctivitis is caused by an acid or alkaline material, like bleach.
  • Allergies: This should disappear once the allergy is treated and the allergen removed.

To relieve the discomfort of conjunctivitis, a useful home treatment is a warm compress on the eye. Preservative-free artificial tears (lubricant eye drops) can be applied frequently too.

Can it be prevented?

Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are contagious and spread very easily. Poor hand washing is the main cause of their spread. Sharing an object with a person who has conjunctivitis can spread the infection. Conjunctivitis is spread through contact with the eye discharge, which contains the virus or bacteria.

To prevent conjunctivitis, as well as its spread:

  • Don’t share eye make-up
  • Don’t use eye make-up until the infection is fully cured
  • Don’t share contact lens equipment, containers or solutions
  • Don’t share towels, linen or pillows
  • Don’t forget to wear safety glasses when working with chemicals
  • Wash your hands often
  • Don’t touch your eyes with your hands
  • Change your pillow cases often
The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in May 2015