Infective conjunctivitis

The surface membrane of your eye is known as the conjunctiva. It forms a thin transparent layer over the white of your eye and under your eyelids.

Conjunctivitis means inflammation of the conjunctiva. It has several causes:

  • An infection (bacteria or viruses, usually flu or cold viruses)-infective conjunctivitis.
  • An allergy- allergic conjunctivitis.

What are the symptoms of infective conjunctivitis?

Infective conjunctivitis can affect one eye or both eyes. The whites of your eyes can look inflamed, swollen and red.

Your eyes may feel gritty, watery or sticky and your eyelids may become swollen and get stuck together, especially in the mornings. Your vision may be blurred due to tears or sticky discharge. You may also get flu-like symptoms such as a sore throat, fever, muscle ache, and feel generally unwell.

What are the treatment options for infective conjunctivitis?

  • No treatment

Most infections clear up on their own within a few days to a few weeks.

  • Antibiotic eye drops or ointment

Viral infections do not respond to antibiotics and the infection may last for two to three weeks before your natural immunity is able to build up enough to clear the virus. Antibiotic drops or ointment may be helpful in conjunctivitis caused by bacteria.

  • Lubricant eye drops, gel or ointment

These may help reduce discomfort and grittiness, but will not reduce the duration of the illness.

  • Simple painkillers 

Such as paracetamol or ibuprofen tablets (provided you have no medical reason which prevents you from using non-steroidal painkillers), are available over the counter at a chemist or on prescription and can ease the discomfort and flu-like symptoms.

  • Regular lid cleaning

You can clean sticky discharge or secretions from your eyes with a clean flannel soaked in warm water.

  • Steroid eye drops are occasionally used in severe cases.

What is the infection risk to others?

Viral conjunctivitis is contagious and spreads very easily through water droplets (coughs and sneezes) or contact with tissues, flannels, towels, pillowcases etc. Frequent hand- washing and proper disposal of used tissues is important in preventing the spread of the condition to other family members or work colleagues.

Advice for contact lens wearers

Contact lenses should not be worn until symptoms have completely cleared.

Are there any complications?

Occasionally, viral conjunctivitis can cause inflammation on the cornea, the front window of the eye, or scarring of the conjunctiva, which can affect the sight, however this usually responds well to treatment.

video transcript

Before putting in your eyedrops, first check that the drops are still in date.

If you were using a new bottle of eyedrops also check that the seal is not broken make sure you're putting the correct drops into the correct eye.

Let the correct time to instill your drops. Place a clean tissue on a flat surface wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water invert the bottle two or three times to ensure the contents are evenly mixed together.

Remove the lid and place it on the tissue tilt your head back, pull down your lower lid and form a small pocket. Make sure that the tip of the bottle does not come into contact with your skin or eyelashes as it might contaminate the drops.

Look up and gently squeeze the bottle so that a single drop falls into the pocket made by your lower lid.

Blink the drops in press lightly on the inner corner of your eye this enables more of the drop to be absorbed and not run away down your tear duct.

Wipe any excess fluid from your closed eyelids with a clean tissue.

Recap your drop bottle if you have more than one drop to instill. Wait at least 5 minutes before putting in another drop.

Wash your hands with soap and water to remove any traces of medication.

If you have any problems please contact our nurse led helpline service Moorfields Direct on 0207 566 2345

Author: Miss Melanie Hingorani, Dr Swan Kang

Review date: June 2026