Conjunctivitis - The Red Eye

Inflammation of the eyes is most commonly caused by conjunctivitis. One of the distinguishing features of conjunctivitis is the ‘gritty’ sensation it causes in the eye rather than pain. You should be able to see normally with conjunctivitis, if not, there is probably a more serious condition present. It is vital that you seek prompt advice if you suffer a sudden deterioration in your vision.

A purulent (pusy) discharge suggests bacterial conjunctivitis. A clear discharge is more suggestive of an allergic or viral conjunctivitis.

Bacterial conjunctivitis

  • There is usually a purulent discharge in one eye that spreads to the other, the eyes may be stuck together in the mornings.
  • There is usually a history of contact with another sufferer.
  • The vision should be normal after the discharge is cleared from the surface of the eye
  • Best treated with antibiotics. Any conjunctivitis which does not clear easily with antibiotics may be caused by a chlamydial infection. Special swabs would need to be taken. Chlamydia and gonorrhoea can both cause severe conjunctivitis in newborn children.
Viral conjunctivitis
  • Usually associated with a cold or flu-like illness. It occurs in epidemics
  • Both eyes feel gritty and uncomfortable
  • There is a watery discharge
  • It can last for weeks
  • Will clear with no treatment but antibiotic drops may ease irritation and prevent secondary bacterial infection.
  • Highly contagious so be very careful regarding hygiene, particularly flannels and towels.
  • If severe and prolonged, steroids can sometimes be used.
Allergic conjunctivitis
  • The main feature is itching
  • It usually involves both eyes
  • There is a clear discharge
  • There is often a family history of allergy
  • There is often a history of hay fever
  • It could be caused by recent contact with chemicals or eye drops.
  • There is a clear/stringy discharge There may be swelling of the conjunctivae (the white part of the eye)
  • Best treated with topical antihistamines. Sodium cromoglycate or nedocromil also work but may take some time; you will need to be persistent.

Further information

This article published on
25 November 2005

Next review date 11/1/2013




Areaof the body

Eyes, ears, nose, throat

Male or female?


  Home | Terms & conditions | Privacy policy | Site map
Owned and Managed by StudentHealth Ltd