Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye): What are the causes and symptoms?

Posted on

06 May 2021

Author: Kate Green


What is conjunctivitis?


Conjunctivitis (also known as pink eye) is a condition which occurs when your conjunctiva becomes inflamed due to an infection. The conjunctiva is a thin layer that covers the whites of your eyes (also known as the sclera), as well as lining the inside of your eyelids. Conjunctivitis, while uncomfortable, is not likely to cause any permanent damage to your vision. It is particularly common in children, due to the nature of how it spreads, although adults can also suffer with it.


Bacterial conjunctivitis vs. viral conjunctivitis


There are two main types of conjunctivitis – bacterial and viral. Both are contagious for as long as you have symptoms, but they need to be treated differently in order for them to clear up quickly.


Bacterial conjunctivitis:

This type of infection spreads to your eyes from your skin or respiratory system. It usually infects your eyes when you have bacteria on your hands and then touch your eyes, or apply makeup which has previously been infected with the bacteria.

Bacterial conjunctivitis almost always improves on its own within around 10 days but, if the symptoms are particularly difficult to deal with, you can also be prescribed antibiotics. These usually provide relief within 24 hours.


Viral conjunctivitis:

Viral eye infections are often spread from your nose to your eyes, usually by cross-contamination with your hands. Alternatively, they can spread if someone coughs or sneezes near you and the droplets reach your eyes.

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Viral conjunctivitis usually clears up in 1-2 weeks without any treatment, but you can also take antiviral medications which can help speed the healing process along.


Allergic reactions:

In some cases, conjunctivitis can actually be caused by an allergic reaction to irritants such as pollen, chlorine, dust, shampoo, or airborne irritants like smoke. Some people even suffer with adverse reactions to contact lenses, or contact lens solution and this type of infection is called ‘giant papillary conjunctivitis’. Irritation like this can be alleviated best by washing out the affected eye to remove any foreign bodies and provide relief. You should see and feel a difference within around four hours of washing out the irritant.


What are the symptoms of conjunctivitis/pink eye?


The symptoms of conjunctivitis depend on which type of infection you have. Some symptoms are exclusive to either viral or bacterial conjunctivitis, while others are shared symptoms.


Symptoms for both bacterial and viral conjunctivitis are:

  • Burning sensation
  • Swollen eyes
  • Tearing
  • Pink or red colour to your eyes
  • Itchy eyes
  • Crusting sticking the eyelashes together


Symptoms exclusive to viral conjunctivitis:

  • Swollen lymph nodes (due to a viral infection)
  • Starts in one eye but can spread to the other
  • Onset with a cold or other respiratory infection
  • Watery eye discharge


Symptoms exclusive to bacterial conjunctivitis:

  • Affects one or both eyes
  • Thick discharge that can cause the eyes to stick together


How can you treat conjunctivitis?


As briefly touched upon previously, bacterial conjunctivitis can be treated with antibiotics, while viral conjunctivitis can be treated with antiviral medication. Alternatively, you can administer no treatment and it should usually clear up within two weeks, depending on the cause of the infection. However, conjunctivitis can be incredibly uncomfortable, as well as unsightly, so you’ll likely find yourself seeking solutions to alleviate some of the discomfort.

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You could use warm, moist compresses to manage any swelling and reduce itchiness. You may also want to clean the discharge from your eyes especially as, upon waking, you might find your top and bottom eyelashes stuck together with dried discharge.


While your eyes will appear watery with the extra discharge, they are likely to be dehydrated and not very well lubricated. You can use artificial tears, or just standard hydrating eye drops, to help prevent any dryness and ease some of the discomfort that comes with dry eyes. For bacterial conjunctivitis, you can also use antibiotic eye drops.


As much as you might not want to see your eye with its infection, you must never put a patch over the eye. It could make the infection even worse and prevent it from healing, as it doesn’t allow the eye to breathe and instead traps the infection in.


How to prevent pink eye


Preventing conjunctivitis is relatively straightforward and relies mainly on basic hygiene practices. Ensuring that you wash your hands regularly and refrain from touching your eyes will go a long way to keeping your eyes healthy and warding off infection.


It is also recommended that you wash your bedding and towels following a conjunctivitis infection. This ensures that you won’t be re-infected once you have healed from your initial infection. You should also apply this logic to any makeup you may have used whilst you had conjunctivitis, and dispose of it to avoid suffering with the infection again.

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When should you see a doctor about your conjunctivitis?


Most of the time, your conjunctivitis should clear up on its own and not cause any damage to your vision. However, in rare cases, it is important to see a doctor, especially if you experience any of the following:

  • Severe pain
  • Blurred vision
  • Light sensitivity
  • Symptoms worsening


These scenarios could suggest a more severe infection, potentially threatening your vision, so it is important to visit an eye doctor to have your eyes and vision checked in these cases.


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