Conjunctivitis

Written by: 
Michelle Roberts, medical writer

What is it?

Infective conjunctivitis is inflammationThe body’s response to injury. of the thin transparent layer covering the whites of the eye and the back of the eyelids caused by bacterial or viral infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites..

Symptoms

One or both eyes may be:

  • Red
  • Sore
  • Itchy or feel like they have grit in them
  • Painful or burning
  • More sensitive to bright light
  • Have a discharge - clear and watery, or sticky pus that turns crusty and can clog the eyelashes and glue the eyes shut.

Causes

Infective conjunctivitis is easily transmitted from one person to another. Viral conjunctivitis is often a symptom of a general viral infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites., such as a cold. Bacterial infections may come from the person's own skin.

Treatment

Most people with infective conjunctivitis need no treatment and get better within a couple of weeks. Try not to touch or rub the infected eye or eyes and wash your hands thoroughly if you do.

The eyes can be cleaned as follows:

  • Use cotton wool soaked in cooled boiled water to remove any crusty discharge
  • As conjunctivitis is highly contagiousAny disease that is communicable., use a fresh piece of cotton wool each time you touch the eye - do not use the same piece to clean both eyes
  • Wash your hands after touching your eyes - or your child's eyes if you are caring for their conjunctivitis.

If the cause is bacterial, antibiotic eye drops or ointment, bought from the pharmacy or prescribed by your doctor, may be recommended.

How to use eye drops:

  • Wash your hands
  • Use a mirror to see what you are doing
  • Wipe your eyes with a clean tissue to clear any residual wateriness or discharge
  • Shake the drops if the label says and take the lid off the bottle
  • Tip your head back
  • Gently pull down your lower eyelid and look up
  • Hold the dropper or bottle above the eye and gently squeeze one drop onto the inside of the lower eyelid, taking care not to touch the eye or eyelashes with the dropper or bottle
  • Blink to spread the liquid over the surface of the eyeball
  • Wipe away any excess liquid with a clean tissue and dispose of this in the bin
  • Repeat this procedure for the other eye if necessary
  • Replace the lid, taking care not to touch the tip of the bottle or dropper with your fingers
  • If you have more than one drop to put in, or are using more than one type of eye drop, wait a few minutes before putting the next drop in to ensure the second drop doesn't wash away the first.

If it is a child you are treating with eye drops, follow the same advice but get them into any of these positions to give the drops:

  • Tilt your child's head back
  • Lay your child flat on his or her back
  • Ask someone to hold your child in a safe position
  • Wrap your baby or young child in a light blanket or sheet to keep his or her arms and legs still.

If your child is getting very distressed and will not have the drops you could try:

  • Tilting your child's head back or lying him flat on his or her back with eyes closed
  • Next, place the drop on the side of the closed eye nearest the nose
  • Let your child's eye open or gently rub the eyelids so the drop bathes the eye.

This method should only be used as a last resort because it is less effective.

If the symptoms persist or get much worse - marked pain, redness or problems with vision - urgent medical attention should be sought.

Generally, there is no need to stay off work or to keep children with conjunctivitis away from school or nursery.

Prevention

Conjunctivitis can be extremely contagiousAny disease that is communicable., making good hygiene important. Keep your hands clean before and after touching your eyes and do not share towels, pillows or other objects that could spread the infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites..

References: 
  1. Clinical Knowledge Summaries (CKS). Conjunctivitis - allergic and Conjunctivitis - infective. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: CKS, 2007.
  2. Chantal S, Everitt H, Kendrick T et al. Oxford Handbook of General Practice (second edition). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  3. Conjunctivitis. Health Protection Agency, February 2008 University College London Institute of Child Health. How to give your child eye drops. London: UCL ICH.