Bacterial Conjunctivitis

What is bacterial conjunctivitis?

Bacterial conjunctivitis is an infection of the outer layer of the eye. Bacterial conjunctivitis may occur in all age groups, but occurs more often in children than in adults. Bacterial conjunctivitis is very contagious, so it is important to take care not to spread the infection. The main symptoms include redness of the eye, thick eye discharge, a sensation of burning, itchiness, and pain in the affected eye. The eyelids can be swollen and sticky. Antibiotic treatment is normally necessary to clear the infection and to prevent spreading it to family members or other close contacts. Most people will recover well, though newborns and people with severe infections are at risk of complications from bacterial conjunctivitis.


Bacterial conjunctivitis occurs when the thin outer layer of the eye gets infected. These bacteria are often passed from person to person, but can also spread from an ear infection or throat infection. It is possible, though uncommon, to get bacterial conjunctivitis as the result of an sexually transmitted bacterial infection (STI). Bacterial conjunctivitis can be very infective, and care should be taken not to pass the infection to family members. Children tend to get bacterial conjunctivitis more commonly than adults.


Typical symptoms include redness of the eye, a thick, yellowish-white discharge from the eye, a sensation of burning, itchiness, or pain at the affected eye. Bacterial conjunctivitis often starts in one eye and spreads to infect both eyes. the eyelids may stick together in the morning, and sometimes require gentle washing to remove the crusty discharge which collects overnight. There may also be swelling of the eyelid and lymph nodes around the ear.


The diagnosis is based on the appearance of the eye and the presence of other symptoms. Newborns with bacterial conjunctivitis are at risk of complications and may require different treatment, so should always be reviewed by a doctor. For newborns, and in other severe cases, a sample of the pus from the eye will be taken and tested to identify the bacteria causing the infection, so that antibiotics specific for the bacteria can be given.


Although bacterial conjunctivitis may clear up without treatment, antibiotic eye drops are usually prescribed to treat and prevent spreading of the infection. It might be helpful to use non-medicated eye drops to sooth any grittiness and pain in the eye. If a sticky, crusty discharge forms on the eyelashes, this can be gently washed away using warm water.


Avoiding contact with people with bacterial conjunctivitis and maintaining good hygiene, such as regular hand washing, can help to prevent some cases of bacterial conjunctivitis. People with this condition should stay home from day care, school or work until the discharge goes away. People who use contact lenses should not use lenses while they have bacterial conjunctivitis and should use a new set of lenses when the infection goes away.