The symptoms of infective conjunctivitis are generally very mild.
Vision can appear blurred or misted because of discharge smeared over the surface of the eye, but this will usually clear on blinking or wiping the eyes.
Because the conjunctiva (unlike the cornea, which covers the iris and pupil) is not very sensitive, conjunctivitis is usually uncomfortable rather than painful.
- The main symptom of infective conjunctivitis is 'pink eye'. The eye looks pink or red.
- Infective conjunctivitis often begins most obviously in one eye but quickly spreads to both eyes. The whites of the eyes look inflamed.
- The eyes may feel gritty and may water more than usual.
- Some mild soreness may develop, particularly if you rub the eyes.
- The eyelids may become swollen. They may be stuck together with gluey material (discharge) after a sleep. This is particularly common in bacterial conjunctivitis.
- Vision is not normally affected. You may develop some blurring of vision, due to discharge at the front of the eye. However, this clears with blinking.
Conjunctivitis does not normally require a healthcare professional to diagnose it. You will realise that you (or your child) have conjunctivitis if you have the signs and symptoms above. However, if you have a pink or red eye with any of the symptoms below, you should seek medical advice as they suggest a different problem.
You should also, always, seek medical advice if you suspect conjunctivitis in a newborn baby. Note: whilst a sticky eye due a blocked tear duct is a very common condition in babies, this condition does not cause reddening of the conjunctiva.
What symptoms should I be concerned about when suspecting conjunctivitis?
You should always seek medical advice if your suspected conjunctivitis is particularly painful, or the discharge is particularly profuse. You may still be correct that you have conjunctivitis, but you may have one of the rare but more serious causes, or you may have another condition in addition to conjunctivitis.
Conjunctivitis should NOT be accompanied by any of the following symptoms:
- Changes in your vision other than smearing.
- Severe pain in the eye.
- Inability to open the eye due to pain.
- Extreme sensitivity to light in the eye.
- Loss of the ability to focus.
- Distorted images.
- Flashing lights.
- Being sick (vomiting).
These or any other severe symptoms suggest another cause for your eye symptoms, and you should seek medical advice urgently.
Further reading and references
Guidance on infection control in schools and other childcare settings; Public Health England (September 2017)
Sheikh A, Hurwitz B, van Schayck CP, et al; Antibiotics versus placebo for acute bacterial conjunctivitis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Sep 12(9):CD001211. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001211.pub3.
Conjunctivitis - infective; NICE CKS, August 2015 (UK access only)
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