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Conjunctivitis

If your eyes look red and feel gritty, you may have conjunctivitis. If your eyes don’t start to feel better after a day or two you should see your doctor, pharmacist or optometrist, because it can occasionally be a sign of a more serious problem.

What is conjunctivitis?

Conjunctivitis is an infection of your conjunctiva, the thin lining that covers the inside of your eyelids and the whites of your eyes. Conjunctivitis can be caused by bacteria, viruses and many agents (such as dust, sand, and pollen) can also irritate your eyes. Conjunctivitis caused by viruses or bacteria spreads easily from person to person. It’s common among school children. Adults are more likely to get it if they have very dry eyes.

Red eye

Figure 1 Red eye

What are the symptoms?

  • Symptoms of conjunctivitis include:
  • watery
  • Red or sore eyes
  • feel gritty and irritated
  • stinging or burning
  • If you have white or yellow pus coming from your eyes, which crusts on your eyelids while you sleep, you probably have a bacterial infection.
  • It may be itchy. This could be a sign of a viral infection.
  • If you get several attacks in a short space of time, your symptoms might be caused by an allergy.
  • If you get conjunctivitis symptoms every year at the same time, it’s probably because of an allergy.
  • You should consult a doctor straight away if you have pain inside your eye, there is any sudden change in your vision, or light makes your eyes hurt. These may be signs of a more serious problem.
  • If you wear contact lenses and you get the symptoms of conjunctivitis, take your contact lenses out and consult your doctor. Conjunctivitis needs to be treated quickly if you wear contact lenses. This is because it can cause a more serious eye infection called keratitis.
  • You should consult a doctor straight away if your baby has the symptoms of conjunctivitis. Some bacteria that cause conjunctivitis can cause other serious infections in babies.

Sticky discharge

Figure 2 Sticky discharge

What treatments work?

Conjunctivitis often clears up on its own. But if you have conjunctivitis that’s caused by bacteria, ointments or drops that contain antibiotics can help get rid of it more quickly. If you have conjunctivitis caused by an allergy, your doctor can prescribe eye drops containing cromolyn sodium or medicines called antihistamines. These eye drops are also occasionally used to treat conjunctivitis that’s caused by a virus. We haven’t looked at these treatments in detail here.

Medicines

Antibiotics are drugs that attack bacteria. If you have conjunctivitis, you put antibiotics such as chloramphenicol and fusidic acid into your eyes in the form of eye drops or an ointment. To use eye drops, gently pull down your lower eyelid to catch the drops. Keep your eye closed for one or two minutes afterwards. If you use an ointment, put it in your eyes the same way. Check with the doctor or pharmacist about how often you should use the drops or ointment, and for how long. If you wear contact lenses, you need to ask your pharmacist, doctor or optometrist about what treatment to use and whether you need to leave your lenses out during treatment. You should avoid ointments. Some eye drops shouldn’t be used with soft (hydrogel) contact lenses.

If you wear disposable contact lenses, you should throw away the set of lenses and the lens case you were using. If you don’t discard the lenses and the case, you might get the same infection again. If you wear lenses that aren’t disposable, ask your optometrist about what to do with them. People with bacterial conjunctivitis who use antibiotic eye drops or ointment usually recover more quickly than people who don’t. Antibiotics can cause mild side effects. They can make your eyes sting for a short time.

Things you can do for yourself

If you have conjunctivitis, there are things you can do to help your symptoms and stop other people catching the infection. Hold a clean cloth soaked in warm water to your eyes (keep them closed). Don’t let anyone else use this cloth. Wash your hands often and don’t share towels or pillows. If you think you have conjunctivitis because of an allergy, try to find out what causes the allergy, so you can try to stay away from it.

What will happen to me?

Nearly 2 in 3 people who have conjunctivitis recover completely in two days to five days without needing any treatment. It’s rare for an infection to cause serious problems.

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