Conjunctivitis/Pink eye

Jaco Woest - B.Optom (UJ)


Conjunctivitis, sometimes called pink eye due to the red/pink appearance it gives the eye, is a condition characterized by an inflammation of the transparent membrane lining the eyes (conjunctiva).  This redness might be accompanied by various other symptoms depending on the cause of the inflammation.  Due to the various possible causes of conjunctivitis, it is important to have a persistently red eye checked out by an eye care professional in order to reach a proper diagnosis.

Infectious conjunctivitis

Microbial infection is a common cause of conjunctivitis.  Infectious conjunctivitis is most commonly caused by a viral or bacterial infection.  The treatment strategy would differ depending on which type of infection is present so accurate diagnosis is important.  Diagnosis would typically be made based on the presenting signs and symptoms.

Viral conjunctivitis:

Viral conjunctivitis is caused by a viral infection, most commonly adenovirus.  Ocular signs and symptoms include redness, irritation, light sensitivity and a watery discharge coming from the eye.  Viral conjunctivitis is also commonly found in conjunction with systemic viral infections such as the common cold.  Viral infections are highly contagious and usually begin in one eye and then rapidly spread to the other eye.  Care needs to be taken to avoid spreading of the condition to others.  This condition is usually self-limiting and should resolve within one to three weeks depending on the severity.  Treatment can be prescribed by an Ophthalmologist in cases where vision is affected.  A cool compress can be applied to the affected eye to provide symptomatic relief.    

Bacterial conjunctivitis:

Bacterial conjunctivitis is, as the name suggests, caused by a bacterial infection of the conjunctiva.  Similar signs and symptoms are found as in viral conjunctivitis, but the added presence of a purulent discharge is usually telling that a bacterial infection is the culprit.  The condition can affect either one or both eyes and is also highly infectious so good hygiene is crucial to prevent the condition from spreading.  Bacterial conjunctivitis is usually self-limiting and should clear up within 2 weeks, but antibiotic eye drops prescribed by a doctor might be needed to speed recovery and clear persistent microorganisms from the eye surface.  Artificial tear drops can also be used to aid with irritation caused by this condition.  

Avoiding the spread

As mentioned above, a crucial aspect of the treatment of infectious conjunctivitis is avoiding the spread of the condition.  Certain simple strategies can go a long way in preventing and controlling the spread of the infection.  These include:

i) Frequent use of hand sanitizers.

ii) Avoid touching the eye

iii) Avoid sharing pillows, towels and other objects that might come into contact with the eye.

Noninfectious conjunctivitis

In some cases, conjunctivitis can be caused by ocular allergies.  Allergic conjunctivitis is usually caused by a hypersensitivity reaction to airborne allergens.  The allergies would typically affect both eyes and cause itching, redness, light sensitivity, swollen eyelids and watery discharge.  Other allergy symptoms such as a runny nose is also usually present.  This condition can be seasonal or perennial (year-round).  In these cases, treatment is aimed towards relief of symptoms and include topical or systemic anti histamines.


Conjunctivitis can have various different causes, and while usually self-limiting, appropriate treatment and control is important to aid recovery and to manage symptoms.  Conjunctivitis also needs to be differentiated from other, possibly more serious, eye conditions that might share some similar signs and symptoms.  For these reasons it is important to have your eyes checked by a qualified eye care professional whenever presenting with symptoms.