A common condition affecting one or both eyes that causes inflammation of the thin layer of tissue – the conjunctiva – that covers the front of the eye and inner surfaces of the eyelids. You may also recognise it as being called
What are the symptoms of conjunctivitis?
- Pink, bloodshot or puffy appearance
- A burning or gritty sensation in the eye
- Sticky or crusty eyelashes – you may feel like your eyes are stuck together when you wake up
Symptoms of conjunctivitis can present differently, depending on its underlying cause. Usually, the affected eye will look pink or bloodshot and perhaps puffy. You may also experience itchiness or a burning sensation.
Contact your optician, GP or NHS 111 immediately for appropriate advice if you experience: eye pain, light sensitivity, disturbed vision, or intense eye redness. These symptoms could be a sign of a more serious eye condition.
What causes conjunctivitis?
There are three main causes of pink eye: infection, an allergic reaction, or an irritant.
- Infection – can be bacterial or viral.
- Allergic reaction - to pollen, for example. This will more commonly cause itching.
- Irritant – when your eye comes into contact with an irritating substance, such as shampoo, chlorinated water, or a loose eyelash.
The cause of inflammation will determine the type of symptoms you get and your treatment.
Conjunctivitis in children and babies
Conjunctivitis in children is extremely common, especially in babies and toddlers under 5 years of age.1 Although it can be uncomfortable for your child, it shouldn’t impact their eyesight. Cases of conjunctivitis in children are mostly caused by an infection, so they may also have other symptoms such as a runny nose or cough, and most children do not need antibiotics as treatment but it will clear up in a couple of weeks by themselves.1
Some cases of conjunctivitis in babies require urgent medical attention from your GP. If your baby or child’s condition is not improving after two weeks or they develop more severe symptoms e.g. eye pain or sensitivity to light, or your baby is less than four weeks old.
For more information, see the NHS guidance on conjunctivitis in children.
Sticky eye in young babies
Many newborns and young babies may also have what appears to be a ‘sticky eye’, similar to a mild conjunctivitis. This occurs in babies as their tear ducts and other eyelid features are still developing and could get blocked. If there is no yellow or green discharge, no swelling and no redness, then it is not likely to be anything to be concerned about.
This usually clears up on its own, but you can relieve symptoms by gently cleaning their eyes with a cotton wool soaked in warm water. You should carefully clean outwards, from the corner of the eye next to the nose to avoid spreading any infection that might be present. If this continues for more than a couple of weeks, you should consult your GP.
What help is available?
Treatment isn’t always necessary for conjunctivitis, as symptoms will usually improve on their own after a couple of weeks.
Any treatment will depend on what is causing the condition. You may need to use antibiotic drops to clear the infection, or antihistamines if it is an allergic reaction.
Otherwise, it’s best not to irritate your eyes further – so avoid wearing contact lenses or eye make-up until your conjunctivitis clears.
1. NHS (2020), Conjunctivitis in children [online]. Available at: https://what0-18.nhs.uk/professionals/pharmacists/safety-netting-documents-parents/conjunctivitis-children-advice-sheet [accessed 3/11/2020].