Conjunctivitis, known as pink eye in the USA, is a common condition which affects the eyes. It occurs when the conjunctiva – the thin, transparent membranes which cover the whites of the eyes and the inside of the eyelids – become inflamed. There are three types of conjunctivitis: infective conjunctivitis (which can be passed from person to person), irritant conjunctivitis and allergic conjunctivitis.

Infective conjunctivitis is common accounting for around 35 percent of eye conditions seen by GP’s in the UK every year. It can have an effect on people of all ages but is most common in children and older people.

What causes conjunctivitis?

The most common causes of conjunctivitis are:

  • Bacterial infection.
  • Viral infection.
  • Sexually transmitted infections (including gonorrhoea and Chlamydia and it is also possible for a mother to pass on Chlamydia to her newborn baby).

Once an individual has conjunctivitis the infection can spread fairly easily through close contact with other people. You do not have to physically touch somebody to get an infection and it is possible for an infection to spread on a crowded bus or train, for example.

Risk factors for conjunctivitis include:

  • Being young or old: this is because infections tend to spread quickly among children (this is due to having underdeveloped immune systems and being in close proximity to other children on a regular basis) and elderly people, because they often have weakened immune systems that make them susceptible to infections.
  • Diabetes.
  • Taking corticosteroids.
  • Blepharitis, a condition which causes the eyelids to become inflamed.

Symptoms of conjunctivitis

Common symptoms of conjunctivitis include:

  • Itchy eyes.
  • Red, sore eyes.
  • Swollen eyelids.
  • Collection of yellow or bright green deposits (mucus) in the corners of the eyes and on the eyelashes. This can make it difficult to open your eyes after you have been asleep.
  • Watery eyes.
  • Inflamed lymph node (gland) at the front of the ear.

Some people also experience symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection, which include:

  • Sore throat.
  • Fever (a high temperature).
  • Headache.
  • Joint pain and aching.
  • Coughing.

When should I see my GP?

Most cases of conjunctivitis clear up quickly without any treatment, but you should see your GP if your symptoms are not clearing up or they are getting worse. If you think your newborn baby may have conjunctivitis, arrange to see your GP as soon as possible. You should be seen by your GP quickly if you experience the following symptoms:

  • Loss of vision.
  • Heightened sensitivity to light (photophobia).
  • Severe redness in one or both eyes.
  • Severe eye pain.

How is conjunctivitis treated?

Conjunctivitis usually clears up without any medical treatment (this can take up to 2 weeks) and there are steps you can take to ease redness and swelling, which include:

  • Removing mucus by gently bathing your eyes in lukewarm water.
  • Use lubricating eye drops (available over the counter, although it is always best to ask your pharmacist for advice).
  • Avoid wearing contact lenses (if applicable).
  • Avoid wearing eye make-up.
  • Wash your hands on a regular basis.

Antibiotics are not usually prescribed for conjunctivitis unless the case is particularly severe or symptoms have got worse over a 2-week period, and in this case the antibiotic most commonly used is called chloramphenicol. Another type of antibiotic, known as fusidic acid, may be prescribed for children, the elderly and pregnant women as it is less likely to cause side-effects.

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