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What is conjunctivitis?
Conjunctivitis is sometimes also called pink eye. It occurs when the outer layer of the eye and the insides of the eyelids become inflamed. This may be caused by an infection with bacteria or viruses, or by allergens and other irritating substances that come into contact with the eye. The main symptoms of conjunctivitis are eyes that are red, swollen, watery and itchy.
Treatment for conjunctivitis can depend on what is causing the condition. Mild cases of conjunctivitis usually clear up on their own, while more serious cases can be cleared up with medicated eye drops or ointments prescribed by a doctor.
Conjunctivitis occurs when the thin layer of cells that line your eye and the insides of your eyelids, called the conjunctiva, become inflamed. There are several different types of conjunctivitis, which have different causes.
Infective conjunctivitis is an eye infection caused by bacteria and viruses. This type of conjunctivitis is contagious and can be easily spread to others. You may become infected if your eyes come into contact with fluid from an infected person.
Some of the bacteria that commonly cause conjunctivitis are Streptococcus pneumonia, Haemophilus influenza, Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pyogenes and Chlamydia trachomatis.
Viral conjunctivitis can be very contagious. It is usually caused by adenoviruses, but can also be caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). In some cases conjunctivitis that is caused by HSV can cause ulcers to form on the inner surface of the eyelid.
Allergic conjunctivitis is caused by an allergic reaction that occurs when the eye comes into contact with certain substances that cause your immune system to overreact. This leads to inflammation of the eye and results in conjunctivitis. Some of the common things that may trigger allergic conjunctivitis include pollen, dust mites and animal fur.
Irritant conjunctivitis occurs when foreign bodies or chemicals get into your eye and cause inflammation. Substances that may cause irritation to the eye include shampoo, smoke, dirt or eyelashes.
Signs and symptoms
The main symptoms of conjunctivitis include:
- Red and irritated eyes;
- Teary or watery eyes;
- Itchy eyes;
- Gritty feeling in the eyes;
- Pus around the eyes;
- Swollen eyelids, and;
- Sensitivity to light;
The symptoms of conjunctivitis can last from a couple of days to around three weeks.
Methods for diagnosis
To work out if you have conjunctivitis, your doctor will examine your eyes. Usually a diagnosis is based on your symptoms. Your doctor may also take a sample of fluid or pus from your eyes and send it for laboratory testing to work out what might be causing your condition.
Types of treatment
Mild conjunctivitis usually gets better on its own without treatment. Some severe cases of conjunctivitis need medical attention. The type of treatment you need depends on what is causing your conjunctivitis.
If you have mild conjunctivitis that is caused by a bacterial infection, your doctor may treat this by washing out your eyes and eyelids with a salt solution and administering antiseptic eye drops, such as propamidine isethionate. However, if your symptoms have not improved in 2-3 days, you are usually advised to return to your doctor. More severe cases may need to be treated with an antibiotic, such as chloramphenicol, which can be administered as eye drops or as an ointment.
There is no specific treatment for most cases of conjunctivitis that are caused by a viral infection. Viral conjunctivitis usually clears up on its own within 2-3 weeks. There are some measures available that may help to relieve your symptoms, including washing the eyes and eyelids with a salt solution, or administering lubricating eye drops. Alternatively, eye drops containing naphazoline or phenylephrine may help to reduce some of the symptoms such as itching and swelling.
If viral conjunctivitis is caused by an infection with herpes simplex virus, treatment may include an antiviral ointment, such as acyclovir, which is applied to the eye.
Allergic conjunctivitis is usually treated with medication to stop the allergic reaction and reduce inflammation. This may include antihistamines and mast cell stabilisers, such as sodium cromoglycate or ketotifen, which are usually administered as eye drops.
Irritant conjunctivitis is usually treated by washing the eyes and eyelids with a salt solution or administering lubricating eye drops.
Recognising the signs of conjunctivitis and seeking treatment from your doctor early are important in preventing any complications. If left untreated, conjunctivitis can affect the parts of your eye that are important for vision. Conjunctivitis caused by Chlamydia trachomatis, which is called trachoma, is the major cause of infectious blindness in the world. Trachoma is a chronic inflammation of the external lining tissue of the eye and eyelids. It can lead to the formation of ulcers and is a common cause of blindness in people who get the infection multiple times. This type of conjunctivitis is common in the indigenous population and in outback communities where there is poor hygiene. It can be spread through contact with other people who have the infection and by flies.
While conjunctivitis can sometimes be an annoying and painful condition, it is usually not very serious. With treatment, the symptoms usually only last several days to a few weeks.
Conjunctivitis that is caused by bacteria or viruses is contagious, which means it can easily spread to other people. You may be able to reduce your chance of getting this type of conjunctivitis if you:
- Wash your hands before touching any area close to your eyes;
- Use clean hands to handle contact lenses;
- Clean towels and face cloths regularly, and;
- Do not share eye cosmetics, such as mascara.
Conjunctivitis may also be prevented by avoiding substances that cause you to have an allergic reaction.
FAQ Frequently asked questions
What is conjunctivitis?
Conjunctivitis is sometimes also called pink eye. It is one of the most common conditions that affect the eyes. It occurs when the outer layer of the eye and the inside of the eyelids becomes inflamed. This may be caused by an infection, viruses or allergens.
What are the symptoms of conjunctivitis?
The main symptoms of conjunctivitis are red and irritated eyes, teary or watery eyes, pus around the eyes, swollen eyelids, sensitivity to light and itchy eyes. These symptoms may last from a couple of days to around three weeks.
What causes conjunctivitis?
Conjunctivitis occurs when the thin layer of cells that line your eye, called the conjunctiva, become inflamed. This can be caused by an infection with bacteria or viruses, or by allergens and other substances that come into contact with the eye and cause …
How is conjunctivitis treated?
The type of treatment depends on what is causing it. Mild conjunctivitis usually gets better on its own without treatment, while more severe cases are usually treated with medicated eye drops or ointments that are applied to the eye.
What is allergic conjunctivitis?
Allergic conjunctivitis is caused by an allergic reaction that occurs when the eye comes into contact with certain substances that cause your immune system to overreact. This leads to inflammation of the eye and results in conjunctivitis. Some of the …
What is infective conjunctivitis?
Infective conjunctivitis is caused by bacteria or viruses that infect the eye. This can occur when your eye comes into contact with fluid from an infected person. Infective conjunctivitis is contagious and can be easily spread to other people.
How is conjunctivitis diagnosed?
To diagnose conjunctivitis, a doctor will examine the affected eyes. A diagnosis is usually made based on your symptoms. A doctor may also take a sample of fluid or pus from the affected eyes and send it to a laboratory for testing to work out the cause of …
Can conjunctivitis be prevented?
You may be able to reduce your chance of bacterial or viral conjunctivitis by practising good hygiene. This may include washing your hands before touching anywhere near your eyes, using clean hands to handle contact lenses, cleaning towels regularly and not …
Is conjunctivitis contagious?
Conjunctivitis caused by bacteria or viruses can be contagious. It may be spread when your eye comes into contact with fluids from an infected person.