Conjunctivitis (eye infection or allergic irritation)

If you have conjunctivitis, it means the lining of your inner eyelids and the whites of your eyes (the conjunctiva) is red and swollen. It can make your eyes sticky and irritated.

Summary

It’s normal for some eye discharge to collect in the corners of eyes during the night, creating some morning crusting (sometimes called ‘sleep’).

Conjunctivitis is sometimes called ‘sticky eye’ or ‘pink eye’. It can be caused by a bacterial or viral infection, chemical irritation, ultraviolet burn or an allergy. In newborns, the cause may be incompletely opened tear-drainage ducts.

Infected conjunctivitis is contagious.

Symptoms

Infected conjunctivitis

Infected conjunctivitis often comes when dirty fingers, towels, handkerchiefs, or facecloths touch the eye. Symptoms appear 2–10 days (usually 3–4 days) after you catch conjunctivitis.

  • If you or a family member has infected conjunctivitis, the white part of your eye will be red and feel gritty.
  • This is followed by a clear, green or yellow discharge from your eye which forms a crust overnight and can make your eyelids stick together in the morning.

Bacterial infection usually occurs in both eyes and produces more discharge. A viral infection is more likely to be in just one eye with only a slight discharge, and may go along with other symptoms like a sore throat.

Newborn babies can catch a form of conjunctivitis from the mother’s birth canal. This condition, known as ophthalmia neonatorum, can be serious and needs prompt treatment with antibiotics.

‘Sticky eye’ in infants

Infants often develop ‘sticky eye’ as their tear ducts are tiny and can easily get blocked. When this happens a clear or white sticky fluid collects in the eye. As long as the eye isn’t red or inflamed, this doesn’t usually need treatment.

Allergic conjunctivitis

Allergic conjunctivitis is caused by an allergy to pollen, cosmetics or other substances. If you or a family member has allergic conjunctivitis, your eye will be red and itchy but without any yellow discharge. If it’s worse in the pollen season, it’s a form of hay fever.

  • Your eye will look red and bloodshot and there may be a clear discharge that makes it feel sticky.
  • If you pull down your lower eyelid you will clearly see redness in the lower eyelid lining.

Treatment

When to see your doctor

If you think you have conjunctivitis, see your doctor. You may need antibiotics if you have an infection, or antihistamines if you have allergic conjunctivitis.

Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.

Self care for infected conjunctivitis

  • Your doctor may prescribe antibiotic drops or ointment. These should be applied to your eyes after gently washing away any discharge from your eyelids with warm water. Use the medicine as directed.
  • Take care to avoid spreading the infection.
    • Avoid touching or rubbing your eyes.
    • Don’t share facecloths or towels with others.
    • Wash your hands often and use paper towels for drying.
  • Children should stay away from school or day care while there is discharge from the eyes and until their eye is no longer pink, or until after 24 hours of treatment, as they can pass the infection to other children.
  • Viral infections will usually disappear on their own.

Self care for allergic conjunctivitis

  • Avoid eye make-up.
  • Your doctor or pharmacist will be able to recommend eye drops or other antihistamine medication.

Using eye drops

  • Wash your hands carefully.
  • Remove any discharge from your eye with a clean tissue.
    • If your eye has crusty discharge around it, wet a cloth with warm water and place this over your eye for a minute. Soak a cotton ball in warm water and gently wipe your eye from the nose side outward. Do this until your eye is clear. Use a second cotton ball for the other eye.
  • Tip your head back or lie on a flat surface.
  • Gently pull down your lower eyelid and position the bottle so the drop will fall into your lower eyelid, not directly on the eyeball. Squeeze the bottle for the required number of drops.
  • Close your eye and blink to help spread the medication around your eye.
  • Wipe any extra drops away with a tissue. Gently pressing on the inner corner of your eye for a minute can stop bad-tasting medication from dripping into the back of your throat.

To give eye drops to a child, follow the same steps.

  • It may help to position yourself so that the side of the hand you’re using to give the drops is against the child’s forehead.
  • Warm the bottle of drops in your hand before you start – this can help avoid the shock of a cold liquid going in the child’s eye.

Using eye ointments

  • When both drops and ointment are needed, do the drops first. If the ointment is used once daily, apply it at bedtime as it can blur your vision.
  • Gently pull down your lower eyelid with the opposite hand.
  • Position the nozzle at the inner part of your eye near your nose.
  • Squeeze a 1 cm ribbon of ointment onto the inside of your lower eyelid. Begin at the side of your eye near your nose and move towards the outer edge of your eye.
  • Give the tube a half-turn. This helps ‘cut’ the ribbon of medicine.
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