Types of conjunctivitis


Conjunctivitis is the term for inflammation of the delicate membrane that covers the white of the eyes and lines the inside surfaces of the eyelids. Conjunctivitis is the most common and least serious cause of redness and discomfort of the eye.

There are four types:

- Viral

- Bacterial

- Allergic

- Chemical

It is not always easy to tell which type you have. It is possible to have more than one type at a time. The type determines the treatment. Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are contagious.

Allergic conjunctivitis can be caused by pollens, cosmetics, animals, fabrics and other allergens. Chemical conjunctivitis by air pollution, chlorine in swimming pools, and noxious fumes.

You have one of the four types if your eyes look puffy, with redness in the white of the eyes and inside of the eyelids, and feel scratchy, on fire, and teary.

It is viral conjunctivitis if:

It occurs in epidemics in schools and other institutions; you and all your friends have it and it affects both eyes within a day or two of each other.

The popular name of viral conjunctivitis is pinkeye. Some types are very infectious and are spread by droplets from coughing or sneezing from someone across the room.

It is bacterial conjunctivitis if: The eyelids stick together on waking in the morning due to pus in the eye.

It is allergic conjunctivitis if: It itches like crazy and if started when you rubbed your eyes after stroking the cat or dog, or if certain pollens causes a seasonal low grade irritation.

It is chemical conjunctivitis if: Both eyes are affected after exposure to a chemical.


Firstly, take steps six steps to lessen the discomfort and speed recovery no matter which type you have:

1. Do not wear contact lenses under any circumstances during any eye infection and for at least a week after all symptoms have disappeared. Carefully clean and sterilise your contact lenses after an eye infection.

2. Do not wear makeup during an eye infection and discard your makeup supply after the infection, as it is probably contaminated.

3. Dip a face cloth in warm or cold water as a simple method for applying compresses to relieve discomfort. Apply these several times a day.

4. If pus is present (as in bacterial conjunctivitis) in the eye it should be washed out as often as necessary to keep the eye clean. Before instilling any prescribed drops, wash the eye with a sterile saline solution. Purchase this solution from your pharmacy or make it at home by boiling water, allow it to cool to room temperature in a clean place, and then dissolve 5ml of table salt in a cupful of the water.

5. If crusting is present on the eyelids (mainly in bacterial conjunctivitis), gently wipe them clean with a lint free cloth dipped in saline solution.

6. Never cover an eye if pus is present.

Secondly, take further appropriate action according to the type:

- Although viral conjunctivitis runs a self-limiting course (ranging from seven days to several weeks) and does not respond to treatment, the virus makes the conjunctiva more prone to other infections. Antibiotic drops can prevent this.

- Visit your doctor in case of bacterial conjunctivitis with eyelids sticking together. You need an antibiotic to clear the infection.

- For allergic or chemical conjunctivitis, try an over-the-counter combination antihistamine and decongestant drop.

See your doctor if:

Your symptoms worsen, if your eyelids stick together or if it’s epidemic.

See your ophthalmologist immediately if you have:

- Loss of vision. With conjunctivitis there is never any loss of vision, only transient blurring.

- Photophobia (ultra sensitivity when looking into bright light).

- Eye pain.


Epidemic viral conjunctivitis is extremely infectious. Stay away from people with this condition. Never share towels, handkerchiefs or facecloths with an infected person. Wash your hands thoroughly after coming into contact with an infected person.

In allergic and chemical conjunctivitis, try to identify and prevent exposure to the substance causing the allergy.

Useful resources:

South African Optometric Association

Tel: 011 805 4517

South African National Council for the Blind

Tel: 012 452 3811

Retina South Africa

Tel: 011 622 4904

Ophthalmological Society of South Africa

Read more:


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