Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Conjunctivitis, sometimes referred to as pink or red eye, is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the lining of the eye. It can be caused by an infection, an allergy or by something that’s irritated the eye.

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).

What causes conjunctivitis?

Conjunctivitis can be caused by an infection, an allergy, or an irritant like shampoo, smoke or water that’s treated with chlorine.

Conjunctivitis symptoms

You can get conjunctivitis in one or both eyes. It often causes the following symptoms.

  • Redness

  • Watery eyes

  • Pus that looks sticky

  • Eyelids stuck together, especially in the morning

  • Itchiness

  • A gritty or burning feeling

  • Blurry vision

Types of conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis can be caused by allergies, infections or an irritant touching the eye. Infections can be caused by either a virus or a bacteria.

Allergic conjunctivitis

Allergic conjunctivitis can be caused by a reaction to:

  • Pollen

  • House dust mites

  • Animal fur 

  • Contact lenses

  • Eye drops

  • Eye make up

Bacterial conjunctivitis

Bacterial conjunctivitis is caused by different types of bacteria

You can get bacterial conjunctivitis from:

  • Wearing contact lenses that aren’t clean

  • Touching your eyes with dirty hands

  • Using makeup brushes and products that have the bacteria on them already

The main symptom of bacterial conjunctivitis is sticky eyes and discharge.

Viral conjunctivitis

Viral conjunctivitis is usually caused by the same virus that causes colds. It’s common in adults and children , and it’s very contagious.

One of the main symptoms of viral conjunctivitis is watery eyes. 

Irritant conjunctivitis

Sometimes conjunctivitis  is a reaction to something that’s irritated your eye, known as irritant conjunctivitis.

You can get it from:

  • Chlorine in swimming pools

  • Smoke

  • Traffic fumes

  • Eye medicine

  • A scratch or from something getting stuck in your eye

Conjunctivitis in babies and children

Conjunctivitis is common in children under 5. 

The self-help treatments for babies, toddlers and children are the same as for adults. You may need to bathe their eyes more regularly if they’re very sticky. 

If your child has any of the following then it is important to get emergency medical assistance

  • Bulging eyes

  • Unable to see

  • Breathing very fast, struggling (or working hard) to breath or pausing

  • Your child is floppy, lethargic or seems very sleepy

  • They are complaining of a severe pain in their eyes

  • They are pale, cold to touch

  • They seem very irritable or they have a high pitched scream

  • A low body temperature of above 38C in a less than 12 week old baby

If your child is under a month old, has blisters next to their eyes, seems unwell, or you are concerned, talk to a GP immediately.

Conjunctivitis treatment


Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis usually gets better on its own within two weeks.

For more severe symptoms or if the symptoms have been going on for more than 14 days, you can buy antibiotic eye drops that contain the ingredient chloramphenicol. This is available by speaking to your pharmacist.


Irritant conjunctivitis should get better as soon as you get rid of what’s causing it. However, if your eye has been in contact with chemicals such as bleach or acid, then it is very important to seek urgent medical care.


Allergic conjunctivitis often gets better with antihistamine eye drops.Antihistamine tablets can also help, particularly if you are getting other symptoms of hayfever such as a runny nose or sneezing.If you can, avoid the allergen that’s causing it.

How to treat conjunctivitis 

To ease the symptoms of conjunctivitis, you can:

  • Stop wearing contact lenses while you have it

  • Avoid touching or rubbing your eyes

  • Bathe your eyes with sterile water – soak a cotton pad in cooled boiled water and wipe it gently across your closed eye (and use a new pad for each eye)

  • Hold a cool compress on your eyes – use a flannel soaked in cold, sterile water

  • Wash your hands frequently

Is conjunctivitis contagious?

If an infection causes your conjunctivitis, it’s very contagious. It often starts in one eye and spreads to the other. 

You can easily pass it on to others by touching your eyes and then touching things around you and spreading the bacteria.

If you have infectious conjunctivitis, you should:

  • Wash your hands regularly

  • Avoid close contact with others (but you can still go to school or work)

  • Don’t share towels or pillows

  • Don’t share makeup

When to see a GP

  • If your conjunctivitis symptoms aren’t better after two weeks, speak to a GP. They might prescribe a different type of antibiotic treatment to the ones you can buy.

    You should also contact a doctor immediately if you have:

    • Pain in your eye

    • A change in your vision

    • Sensitivity to light

    • Extreme redness in your eye(s)

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi