Soothe symptoms of conjunctivitis
Conjunctivitis is painful inflammation of the outer coat of the eye
- distinguish between allergic conjunctivitis and infection
- prevent spread of conjunctivitis
- treat bacterial conjunctivitis
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Conjunctivitis is inflammation of the conjunctiva which is the outermost thin membrane covering the eye surface. Conjunctivitis is also known as red eye or pink eye.
- red eyes – this occurs because the tiny blood vessels in the conjunctiva dilate. Usually they are so small you can’t even see them, but when inflamed they become visible
- watering eyes – inflammation causes the tiny glands in the conjunctiva that usually produce mucus and tears that protect the eye, to become very overactive. This results in eyes watering
- itchy eyes these are more common with allergic conjunctivitis
- feeling of grit in the eye – as opposed to pain which is a more worrying symptom
- gunky eyes: sticky yellowish coating on the eye lashes or creamy discharge. This may indicate a bacterial infection
- enlarged lymph nodes particularly in front of the ear
- accompanying cold or sore throat usually indicates a viral infection or an allergic reaction
When you should contact a doctor
- if you experience eye pain
- if you are overly sensitive to light
- if you experience loss of vision
- if you have intense redness in one or both of your eyes
- if you are generally unwell with a fever
Causes of conjunctivitis
Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are very contagious so strict hygiene must be observed. Always wash your hands after touching your eyes. Use your own towel or face flannel and avoid close contact with other people
Allergic conjunctivitis is triggered by contact with allergens such as pollen, dust mites or animals and is a common part of hay fever.
This is due to physical damage to the conjunctiva either by UV light (effectively giving the conjunctiva sunburn – common in skiers who don’t wear sunglasses or goggles), chlorinated water, salt water, shampoo or having something rubbing the eye such as an eyelash. Removing the cause usually clears the problem.
This is an autoimmune condition where the immune system attacks the glands that produce tears, reducing eye lubrication causing irritation. This can be part of a bigger condition called Sjögren's syndrome.
Chlamydia causes inflammation of the inner eyelid which then damages the conjunctiva and cornea. Not really a conjunctivitis but important as chlamydia is the world's commonest preventable cause of blindness.
Conjunctivitis is very uncomfortable and it is difficult to stop yourself from rubbing your eyes, but rubbing really does make the irritation worse. Do not wear contact lenses while suffering from this condition. Cold compresses are excellent for reducing inflammation. Put a damp flannel in the fridge then hold it gently to your closed eyes. Repeat as often as you like. Anti-inflammatory medicines such a ibuprofen and painkillers such as paracetomol can help you cope with the discomfort. Lubricant eye drops such as lacrilube are available and can help ease eye pain and are especially useful in viral conjunctivitis.
Multiple studies have shown that in the vast majority of cases antibiotics don’t help cure conjunctivitis. Usually treated and untreated people get better at the same time. However, it is common practice to treat conjunctivitis to help prevent spread and allow people to return to their usual activities as soon as possible. Certainly if your conjunctivitis is very severe and hasn’t gone away after a week you need antibiotic eye drops or ointments. These usually contain chloramphenicol or if this is unsuitable, fusidic acid.
In allergic conjunctivitis antihistamine eye drops such as olopatidine are very effective at clearing the problem but you may need to use them every day during the pollen season (if you have hay fever) or consider allergen avoidance if you have a pet or dust mite allergy.