Your guide to conjunctivitis

How to tackle this common eye complaint and when you should see a doctor

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Most children will suffer a bout of conjunctivitis as some stage. It’s a common complaint where eyes turn sticky, red and itchy. It’s usually harmless and clears up quickly, but can be a cause for concern in babies under a month old.

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What is it?

Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of a thin layer of tissue that covers the front of the eyeball, known as the conjunctiva, due to an infection or irritant. It is sometimes referred to as ‘red eye’ or ‘pink eye’.

Causes

There are three different types:

  1. Infective: This is the result of a bacterial or viral infection.
  2. Allergic: A reaction to an allergen, such as pollen, and is not contagious.
  3. Irritant: This is caused by the eye being irritated by something, such as shampoo, smoke or chlorine from a swimming pool and is not contagious. 

Symptoms

Itchy and watery eyes are a sign of conjunctivitis and there may be a burning sensation or a feeling of grit being in the eyes. The eyes can be sticky due to a discharge, which can be yellowish in colour and stick the eyelashes together in the morning. Infective conjunctiitis can be found in conjunction with cold or flu-like symptoms, while allergic conjunctivitis may be associated with other allergy symptoms, such as sneezing.

Treatment

Although uncomfortable, conjunctivitis usually clears up after a couple of days without treatment and shouldn’t last longer than two weeks. Wiping eyes with cottoon wool soaked in cooled, boiled water, using new pieces of cotton wool for each eye, can soothe your child.

Sterile saline can also be used, and this can be bought over the counter.

For bacterial infective conjunctivitis, antibiotic eyedrops or cream may be prescribed. If the infection is viral, lubricating eyedrops can be used. Allergic conjunctivitis may be treated with antihistamines. If your child has allergic conjunctivitis due to hay fever, wearing wrap-around sunglasses can help. Irritant conjunctivitis will clear up once the irritant is removed. Your child may feel more comfortable wearing goggles when swimming and using perfume-free shampoo.

If your child complains of pain, or has blurred or disturbed vision (such as seeing double or flashing lights or floaters), seek medical advice, as in vare rare cases conjunctivitis can spread to other areas, like the brain, causing other infections.

Is it contagious?

Infective conjunctivitis is easily spread, so your child should wash her hands regularly and avoid sharing towels. Give towels and pillows a hot wash after use. Encourage her not to touch or rub her eyes. You don’t need to keep your child as home, but check with your doctor and nursery or playgroup first.

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Neo-natal conjunctivitis

This is a form of infective conjunctivitis that affects babies younger than 28 days. It can damage vision or cause complications, such as pneumonia. If your baby’s under 28 days old and has redness in her eyes, contact your GP.

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