What is it?
Conjunctivitis is the commonest cause of a red eye. It is an infection of the conjunctiva, the thin lining that covers the inside of the eyelids and the whites of the eyes.
Conjunctivitis can arise from a number of causes, with viruses, allergy and bacteria being the commonest. It can also sometimes be caused by contact with certain chemicals, and problems with contact lenses. Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are highly contagious. They are common among school children, and adults with very dry eyes.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of conjunctivitis include watery, red, or sore eyes. The eyes may feel gritty and irritated, stinging, or burning. In bacterial conjunctivitis, there is usually white or yellow pus coming out from the eyes, which causes crusts on the eyelids during sleep.
Allergic conjunctivitis usually comes with itchy eyes, and may give several
attacks in a short space of time, or may occur at the same time every year. Vision is generally good in conjunctivitis.
What treatments work?
Conjunctivitis often clears up on its own. If it doesn’t, then the treatment the doctor suggests may depend on what has caused the conjunctivitis.
For mild symptoms, cold compresses and lubricant eye drops can help. The eye drops help wash away the irritants that cause allergic conjunctivitis.
For moderate symptoms, drugs called antihistamines can be used as eye drops or tablets. Drops of drugs called mast cell stabilisers may also be prescribed. Both act in a similar way. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may help reduce the inflammation (swelling) in the eyes, and they come as eye drops.
People with severe symptoms should see an eye specialist who may prescribe corticosteroid eye drops for a short period of time. This may be used in addition to the antihistamines and mast cell stabilisers. Ciclospirin eye drops may also be prescribed if the other treatments fail. This works by lowering the immune system’s reaction to the offending substances.
Conjunctivitis caused by bacteria usually clears up on its own. But the doctor may prescribe antibiotic eye drops if the symptoms become distressing. Antibiotic tablets are taken in addition if the conjunctivitis is due to a sexually transmitted infection like gonorrhoea and chlamydia.
There is no specific treatment for this and symptoms usually clear up without treatment after a few days. Some of the treatments that help with allergic conjunctivitis may also be useful here.
Conjunctivitis caused by other things
Conjunctivitis caused by contact lenses can sometimes lead to a more serious infection called keratitis. So it is important to see a doctor immediately.
Contact with chemicals can sometimes irritate the eyes and cause conjunctivitis. The eyes should be washed thoroughly, and a doctor seen immediately if any chemical gets into the eyes.
Some medications can irritate the eyes when taken. However, this usually goes away once the drug is stopped.
It is important to observe some hygiene to avoid spreading conjunctivitis especially if it’s bacterial or viral. Also, identifying the substance that causes the allergy and trying to stay away from it helps in allergic conjunctivitis.