Most of us have experienced "pink eye" or conjunctivitis at some time in our lives, either as children or adults, or both. We have woken up with red burning eyes that we struggle to open because of the discharge gluing them together. Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the thin clear membrane over the white of the eye (sclera) and the inside of the eye lid. Not generally a serious health risk, it can be contagious, spreading easily from person to person. There are a number of different kinds of conjunctivitis, each with their own cause, symptoms and treatment, although the symptoms are sometimes similar regardless of the cause.


Bacterial conjunctivitis generally affects both eyes, or may start in one eye and spread quickly to the other. It is an infection caused by a bacteria which may come from the person's own skin or upper respiratory tract, or have been caught from another person with conjunctivitis.

Bacterial conjunctivitis is characterised by redness, itching and a discharge which crusts over the eyelids and lashes, particularly on waking from sleep. There is a feeling of grittiness in the eyes and may be an increased sensitivity to light.

This type of conjunctivitis is usually treated with antibiotic drops or ointment, and should clear within a few days. Discharge and crusting can be cleaned with cotton wool dipped in cooled boiled water. Even if left untreated, most cases will clear up on their own within a couple of weeks.


This is usually associated with a cold or viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, and is quickly spread from one person to another. The person often feels unwell, with the generalised symptoms of a cold, and a sensation of something in the eyes. The eyes appear red, watery and sometimes swollen with a "glassy" appearance.

Just as a cold needs to run its course, so does viral conjunctivitis, which usually takes 5 to 7 days. Treatment is generally symptomatic, aiming to ease the discomfort. Soothing eye drops or ointment may be used, and cold compresses can make the eyes feel more comfortable. Medication which targets the generalised physical symptoms may help. Because it is highly contagious, strict hygiene should be practiced, including frequent hand washing and no sharing of towels. Contact lenses should not be worn until the symptoms have been relieved.


Allergic conjunctivitis is common amongst people who suffer from allergies such as hayfever or excema, or are allergic to organisms in the environment, including pollen, dust or certain cosmetics.

The symptoms may occur only at certain times of the year, depending on the allergen, or can be present all year round. They include itching, redness, watering, and a feeling of irritation in the eyes.

Allergic conjunctivitis should improve once the allergy is treated and the allergen removed. Non-prescription artificial tears may help relieve itching and burning, but eye drops promoted to reduce eye redness may irritate the eyes and should not be used. Ask your optometrist to recommend the most appropriate eye drops for your symptoms. Antihistamines either taken orally or in eye drops are sometimes prescribed, but need to be used for a few weeks to be effective. In some cases, corticosteroid eye drops can be used, but need to be prescribed and monitored by a medical professional.


Sometimes exposure to irritants such as smoke, swimming pool chemicals shampoos or fumes from certain chemicals causes a reaction in the eyes resulting in redness, watering and burning.

Using cold water to flush the eyes usually helps within a few minutes.

If the conjunctivitis is caused by an acid or alkaline substance, rinse the eyes thoroughly with cold water and seek medical attention as soon as possible.


While conjunctivitis is generally not a risk to sight or eye health and can often resolve without treatment, it can be extremely uncomfortable and irritating. Certain simple steps, including home remedies, can ease the discomfort. These tips may be helpful in the case of conjunctivitis with mild symptoms, but you may need to consult your doctor or optometrist if there is severe pain, problems with vision or increased swelling or tenderness around the eyes.

  • Apply a warm or cold compress to the eyes three or four times a day to ease the discomfort and reduce swelling. If using cotton wool, be sure to discard it after use; if using a face cloth, use separate cloths for each eye and wash well after each application.
  • A chamomile tea bag steeped in boiling water, cooled and placed over the eyes for half an hour can help reduce swelling and soothe burning. Discard after use.
  • Placing slices of raw potato, a natural astringent, over the eyes can help reduce inflammation.
  • A turmeric compress can help alleviate the discomfort and swelling associated with conjunctivitis.
  • Protect your eyes from dirt and other irritating substances.
  • Avoid the use of eye makeup, which may irritate the eyes.
  • To prevent the spreading of the infection and to minimise discomfort, avoid wearing contact lenses until the symptoms have cleared.

Ask your optometrist which over-the-counter eye drops may be effective in relieving symptoms and not irritate the eyes further.


  • Try not to touch or rub the infected eye or eyes.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water.
  • Wash any discharge from the eyes several times a day using a fresh cotton ball or paper towel. Afterwards, discard the cotton ball or paper towel and wash your hands with soap and warm water.
  • Use tissues or paper towels to dry the eyes and throw them away after use. Use a separate one for each eye.
  • Wash your hands before and after applying eye drops or ointment.
  • Don't share towels or face cloths.
  • Wash pillowcases and towels in hot water and detergent.
  • Avoid wearing eye makeup.
  • Don't share eye makeup with anyone.
  • For a few days wear glasses instead of contact lenses. Throw away disposable lenses, or be sure to clean extended-wear lenses and all eyewear cases.
  • Do not use eye drops that were used for an infected eye in a non-infected eye.
  • Once treatment is over and the condition has resolved, dispose of any eye drops that were used.
  • If your child has bacterial or viral conjunctivitis, keep him or her home from school until he or she is no longer contagious. It's usually safe to return to school when symptoms have been resolved; however, it is important to continue practicing good hygiene.