Bacterial conjunctivitis

Bacterial conjunctivitis occurs when bacteria infect the transparent protective membrane that lines the eyelid and covers the white part of your eye (conjunctiva). Small blood vessels in the conjunctiva become inflamed with the infection and this causes them to be more visible. Conjunctivitis is often called ‘pink eye’ as the affected eye can look very red. This eye infection also causes a discharge from the eye which can be yellow or green in colour and feels sticky. It is often noticed on waking up in the morning as the eyelids can feel stuck together. The affected eye can also water a lot, feel gritty or itchy and there can be swelling of the eyelid. Sometimes people may notice that the lymph nodes in front of their ear are swollen. One or both eyes may be affected, and if the infection starts in one eye it can easily be transferred to the other eye without stringent hand washing and hygiene practices.

Symptoms that indicate something more serious may be going on in the eye are vision changes, sensitivity to light, pain in the eye, a sensation of a foreign body in the eye or a headache with nausea. Generally bacterial conjunctivitis does not cause any complications, however it is a concern if it affects newborn babies, people with weakened immune systems or those undergoing chemotherapy. In all of these instances medical treatment should be sought immediately.

Bacterial conjunctivitis is spread very easily and is common in babies and young children. Bacteria can be introduced to the eye by some form of contamination – either exposure to a contaminated surface or direct contact with the secretions from an infected person. The infection can also occur along with a cold or other respiratory infections. It can happen in people who wear contact lenses if the contacts have not been cleaned properly.

In most cases the infection will clear up on its own within five to fourteen days. Antibiotic eyedrops or eye ointment such as chloramphenicol eyedrops can shorten the course of the infection but are best given early in the infection, ideally before day six. Either a prescription from your GP or a consultation with a pharmacist is needed to obtain antibiotic eyedrops or ointment. If medicated eyedrops or ointment are prescribed it is important to finish the course and then throw away the bottle or tube. Other treatment to help soothe the irritation is to clean the discharge from the affected eye throughout the day with a clean cloth or sterile pad and warm water, and to use lubricating eye drops. People who wear contact lenses should stop wearing their contacts as soon as they get symptoms and should not wear them again until symptoms have cleared. Once the infection has gone it is important to use a new pair of contacts.

If you or your family member has bacterial conjunctivitis you should stay off school or work until the symptoms have cleared (usually when the eyes are no longer red or irritated) to avoid passing the infection on to others. Avoid the public swimming pool. Remember to wash pillowcases and towels often and in a hot wash, and don’t share these items with others. Once the infection has cleared you might need to discard or replace some items of make-up to avoid re-infection.

To minimise the chance of getting a bacterial eye infection wash hands often or use hand sanitiser, avoid touching or rubbing the eyes, and never share make-up, personal eye care products, contact lenses or eye drops/creams.

This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked mate­ri­als, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.

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