What is pink eye? Everything you need to know about conjunctivitis

Woman with sore, pink eye
You may have heard the term ‘pink eye’, but what this term is actually referring to is the eye infection medically known as conjunctivitis. It can make the eye pink or red in colour and is pretty painful to say the least.  
There are different types and causes of conjunctivitis, these being allergic, bacterial or viral. The important thing to remember is that it can be highly contagious, so the more you know about this infection the better you can protect yourself and others from catching it.
Read on for symptoms, causes, treatment and prevention. 

What is conjunctivitis? 

Conjunctivitis is a condition that usually affects both eyes. This condition can be infectious but it can also be triggered by allergies, such as pollen or other irritants entering the eyes. 
Although it can get better on its own without any treatment, the symptoms can be uncomfortable, so you may want to try and speed up the healing process. Symptoms of conjunctivitis include redness, swelling, itching, and a burning or gritty feeling, and the eyes may water and have sticky pus that makes them difficult to open, particularly when you wake up. You may find that it hinders your job or ability to do normal activities. 

Viral, bacterial, and allergic conjunctivitis 

Conjunctivitis can be caused by viruses, bacteria and allergens. Viral conjunctivitis, the most common type, is related to the same virus as the common cold, so you may find that you develop this when you’re run down and ill. Viral conjunctivitis can spread rapidly through schools, workplaces, and homes without regular sanitisation. 
woman with flu
Bacterial conjunctivitis is also highly contagious and there are many different types of bacteria that can cause this infection. You’ll often find that viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are accompanied by other cold symptoms such as a sore throat. In fact, the same bacteria that causes strep throat (Streptococcus pyogenes) can also cause conjunctivitis.
Unlike viral and bacterial, conjunctivitis caused by allergy is not contagious. It occurs when allergens such as pollen enter the eyes, causing a reaction. The redness, irritation and inflammation are your body’s response to the allergen, which can sometimes be overactive. 
With all types of conjunctivitis, touching your eyes and face is the main route for viruses, bacteria and allergens to enter your eyes and cause conjunctivitis. As difficult as it can be, try and get into the habit of touching your eyes and face less and washing your hands more - it will help prevent catching a whole host of illnesses. 

Conjunctivitis and sexually transmitted infection

‘Pink eye’ can be associated with sexually transmitted infections (STIs). In some cases, conjunctivitis can be caused by gonorrhoea or chlamydia. You can’t catch these types of conjunctivitis simply by being close to someone or sharing towels, it can only be passed on through sexual contact or contact with infected genital fluids.
Both chlamydia and gonorrhoea are treatable, but it’s important to get diagnosed and treated early to avoid complications. If left untreated, chlamydia and gonorrhoea-related conjunctivitis can lead to vision loss. It’s particularly important to get urgent treatment for sexually transmitted infections if you’re pregnant, as these infections can cause conjunctivitis in newborn babies through birth.  

How long does conjunctivitis last?

Without any treatment, conjunctivitis can clear up within 1-2 weeks. This may seem like a long time given how uncomfortable the symptoms can be, and it’s important to avoid work or school whilst you’re still contagious (if you can). 
For bacterial conjunctivitis, the healing time can be quicker if antibiotics are prescribed. Antibiotics won’t help with viral conjunctivitis - these infections are often left to clear on their own, which may take a full 14 days. 

How to tell if you’re still contagious

As a rule of thumb, if your eyes are still red, itchy, or have sticky pus or crusting, you should take extra care around other people as you will be contagious. It’s best to wait until the infection has fully cleared and symptoms aren’t present before returning to school or work. 

Is it possible to treat conjunctivitis? 

Man using eye drops
Yes, but this all depends on the cause of your conjunctivitis, and treatment will vary depending on the type. Suppose you’ve been diagnosed with bacterial conjunctivitis, for example. In that case, you may be prescribed a course of antibiotics which will clear up symptoms, prevent the spread of the infection and prevent complications. 

When it comes to viral conjunctivitis, however, antibiotics are useless. Viral infections need to run their course, antibiotics cannot kill viruses and are therefore not necessary in this type of infection.
Using antibiotics unnecessarily does more harm than good. Antibiotic resistance is a very real problem in the modern world and we must limit our use where possible to avoid this super drug becoming ineffective. Find out more about antibiotic resistance and why we are limiting the number of private prescriptions for antibiotics
Antihistamines in the form of eye drops are the usual treatment for conjunctivitis caused by all sorts of allergies. The lubrication of the eye drops also helps to keep the eyes moist and lessen the dryness and irritation. You can also place a cold compress on the eyes to temporarily ease the discomfort. 
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Pink eye most certainly isn’t the look you’re going for, but avoid any cosmetics around your eyes, as it won’t improve the look and it could worsen your condition. 

How to prevent conjunctivitis

The key to avoiding conjunctivitis is to practice good hygiene, particularly if you’re aware of an outbreak in your workplace or school, etc. As mentioned earlier, your hands are a trap for all sorts of nasty viruses, bacteria, and allergens - when touching your face, these can easily enter your body causing an infection. 
Regular hand washing is important, and you should sanitise in between thorough washes. As well as this, anything you usually share in households should be separated, such as towels, washcloths, pillowcases and skincare products. Anything you use for your eyes, such as cosmetics, should not be shared with anyone else, even without having conjunctivitis. 
Other than practising good hygiene, looking after your general health can make you less susceptible to illness. This includes sleeping well, maintaining a healthy diet, moving regularly, and ensuring you’re getting enough of the important vitamins such as vitamin C and vitamin D. This all helps to boost your immune system and fight off infection! 

Laura Shillcock - Medical Content Writer
James O'Loan - CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist
James O'Loan , CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist on 14 March 2023
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