Conjunctivitis is an inflammation or infection that affects the eye. Discover the symptoms and how to treat conjunctivitis.
What is conjunctivitis?
Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the outer layer of the eye, called the conjunctiva. It can be caused by an infection (a bacteria or a virus) an allergy, like pollen, or an irritant (like shampoo, smoke or chlorinated water).
Symptoms of conjunctivitis
- Red, inflamed eyes
- Watering eyes
- Pus or discharge from the eye
- ‘Grittiness’ in the eye
Viral conjunctivitis typically causes a more watery discharge to be produced from the eye, whilst bacterial conjunctivitis causes a thicker pus.
Is conjunctivitis contagious?
If caused by an infection, conjunctivitis is usually highly contagious. It usually starts in one eye but easily spreads to the other. It also easily spreads from person to person, so you should take extra care to avoid sharing face cloths, towels or makeup with an infected person.
How to treat conjunctivitis
Conjunctivitis that’s caused by an infection will usually resolve on its own without treatment, within two weeks.
For more severe cases caused by bacterial infections, cream or antibiotic eye drops - with the ingredient chloramphenicol - can be bought over the counter in a pharmacy. Other types of antibiotic eye drop can be prescribed by a GP.
Irritant conjunctivitis will improve as soon as the stimulus causing irritation is removed.
Allergic conjunctivitis can be treated with antihistamine eye drops, or in more severe cases, antihistamine tablets. These are available from a pharmacy. The allergen causing the conjunctivitis (like pollen or pet hair) should be removed or avoided.
For all types of conjunctivitis:
- Remove contact lenses
- Avoid touching or rubbing the eyes
- Clean the eyes regularly with sterile water. Use boiled water that’s cooled down with a clean cotton pad, and gently wipe across closed eyes to clean the eyelashes and remove discharge
- Hold a cool compress (flannel soaked in cold sterile water) over the eyes to relieve discomfort
When to see a GP
- Your symptoms have not resolved within 2 weeks
- You develop pain in the eye
- You develop any change in your vision
- You develop a sensitivity to light
- You develop a very red eye
- You have a newborn baby who develops conjunctivitis.
- Last updated:
- Reviewed by:
- Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi