Conjunctivitis is a common eye condition which can have many different causes. It can affect anyone at any age, but is usually easily treated and may even resolve on its own.

What is conjunctivitis?

Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva - a thin transparent film that covers the white part of the eye and under the upper eyelid.

What are the causes?

Conjunctivitis is often caused by a bacterial or viral infection. It's very contagious so you'll need to take extra care to avoid becoming infected if someone in your household has it. Below, you'll find tips on how to avoid getting it from someone.

Some sexually transmitted infections (STIs), like gonorrhoea and chlamydia, can cause conjunctivitis symptoms for a couple of weeks or more. However, infection is not the only cause for conjunctivitis. It can also be caused by:

  • Allergies, which can be seasonal like hay fever, or throughout the year
  • Irritants in the eye, such as dust or smoke
  • Chemical irritants, including shampoo or chlorine in swimming pools

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of conjunctivitis include:

  • Red or bloodshot eyes
  • Burning and itchiness in your eyes
  • Watery eyes
  • A feeling of grit in your eyes
  • Sticky eyes or pus in your eyes. You'll often find your eyes stuck together with discharge when you wake up in the morning

How can I determine the cause of my conjunctivitis?

If your conjunctivitis is caused by an infection, you will probably have red and sticky eyes. Bacterial conjunctivitis tends to produce more sticky discharge than viral conjunctivitis. Viral conjunctivitis may occur with cold symptoms such as a congested nose and a cough, and eyes tend to be watery.

Conjunctivitis caused by allergies usually involves red, itchy and watery eyes. You may also get a runny nose and a tickly cough. 

With chemical or irritant conjunctivitis you may have red and gritty-feeling eyes after being exposed to irritants such as hair dye, dust, car spray, welding or chlorine from swimming pools.

How long does conjunctivitis last?

The duration of your conjunctivitis symptoms will depend on their cause. Bacterial and viral conjunctivitis usually goes away on its own after two weeks, and possibly sooner if you receive treatment. If you find your symptoms persist for longer than two weeks in spite of treatment, you'll need to see your Doctor who'll be able to identify the exact cause. Your infection may need specific antibiotics.

Allergic conjunctivitis usually lasts for a few months, or may even be present all year round. However, there are treatments available that can help to relieve symptoms.

When conjunctivitis is caused by chemical or physical irritants, you will often start to feel relief from your symptoms by simply avoiding the source of the irritant. Avoiding swimming in chlorinated pools or staying away from dusty environments, for instance, is likely to help. It's common to feel better after a day or two.

What is the treatment?

There are things you can do to help treat and soothe symptoms of conjunctivitis on your own:

  • Boil some water and leave it to cool down. Soak some cotton balls and then gently wipe any crusts from your eyes. You can do this in the morning and up to two other times during the day
  • Hold a cold flannel to your eyes to cool off any burning or itching in your eyes

If you're still experiencing symptoms, speak to your pharmacist who'll help you find a suitable treatment or advise you to see your Doctor. Bacterial conjunctivitis often gets better on its own within a week. In some cases, your pharmacist may recommend eye drops or ointment. There's no treatment for viral conjunctivitis and it will get better on its own.

The following treatments are usually used to help alleviate allergic conjunctivitis:

  • Lubricating eye drops
  • Antihistamine eye drops or tablets which work by reducing the extent of the allergy
  • Mast cell stabiliser eye drops which also help the allergy to subside
  • Keep away from irritants or chemicals that may be causing your conjunctivitis. If this is unavoidable, lubricating eye drops may help to ease your symptoms

How can I help to avoid getting conjunctivitis?

There are some things you can do to help avoid getting infectious conjunctivitis, especially if you live with someone who has infective conjunctivitis: 

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Avoid touching or rubbing your eyes
  • Avoid sharing towels or pillows. Wash pillows and face cloths with soap and hot water

It's important to take special care if you use contact lenses:

  • If you think you might have conjunctivitis, remove your contact lenses immediately and consult your contact lens care provider
  • Wash your hands well with soap and water before handling your lenses or touching your eyes
  • Rinse your lenses with contact lens solution after using them
  • Change the contact lens solution every time you wear your lenses
  • If your lens falls to the floor or a surface, wash it very thoroughly with contact lens solution before using it
  • Don't leave lenses in your eyes for longer than what the manufacturer recommends
  • Don't sleep with your lenses in unless your optician says it's okay to
  • Keep your lenses in contact lens solution when you're not using them
  • Don't use your lenses if your eyes burn, itch or you get blurry vision when putting them on
  • Don't wear your lenses for longer than the manufacturer advises. Reusable lenses usually need to be thrown away after a week or a month, depending on the brand

If you tend to get allergic conjunctivitis:

  • Stay indoors when the pollen count is high
  • Avoid grassy areas
  • Wear sunglasses when outside
  • Keep your home dry and well-ventilated
  • Avoid contact with any irritants that you've noticed cause your conjunctivitis symptoms

When should I see my Doctor?

Make an appointment with your Doctor if you have symptoms for more than two weeks. You should also make an appointment if you have allergy symptoms and you wear contact lenses, or if your baby has red eyes.

See your Doctor urgently if you get any of the following alongside conjunctivitis:

  • Your baby is less than 28 days old and has red eyes
  • You have painful eyes
  • You have pain in your eyes when looking at a bright light
  • You have pain in your eyes when pressing over your closed eyes
  • You're feeling sick or vomiting
  • You're experiencing decreased vision
  • You have a headache
  • You have a rash with blisters over your face, nose and eyes