By Dr Evelyn Lewin

The conjunctiva are the clear membranes that cover the whites of the eyes. In conjunctivitis, they become inflamed. The causes of conjunctivitis are bacteria, viruses and allergies (e.g. hay fever). Bacterial and viral conjunctivitis are highly contagious and you should ensure all bedding, surfaces and hands are washed with antibacterial soap. Allergic conjunctivitis is not infectious. 


Children with Conjunctivitis have red, itchy, uncomfortable eyes. Their eyelids may also be swollen, making their eyes look puffy. They often dislike bright lights. They may wake in the morning with crusty eyelids. Symptoms can last from a couple of days, through to weeks. Allergic conjunctivitis:   Eyes tend to be itchy. Other symptoms of allergy are usually present, including sneezing and a runny, itchy nose.

  • Viral conjunctivitis:  Viral conjunctivitis tends to affect one eye, but can affect both. A lymph node in front of the ear (felt as a small bump) is usually raised. Eyes are weepy. Viral conjunctivitis may last for weeks.
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis:  Bacterial conjunctivitis tends to affect both eyes, though it can start in one eye. The eyes are irritated, with a thick pus-like discharge.

In both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis, children are infectious until the discharge has cleared.


Allergic conjunctivitis: Allergic conjunctivitis can be eased by antihistamine medication. These can be taken orally, or special antihistamine drops can be applied to the eyes. Bacterial conjunctivitis: Bacterial conjunctivitis is treated with antibiotic eye drops. Both eyes should be treated (even if only one is affected). Viral conjunctivitis: Treatment is not needed. Cleansing closed eyes with a moist cotton wool ball may help reduce irritation. If not improving, see a doctor. Bacterial and viral conjunctivitis: Because these conditions are so catchy, proper hygiene is important. Ensure your child thoroughly washes her hands after touching her eye. Children should not attend daycare or school until infection has cleared. To put drops in your child’s eye, ask her to lie down and look up. Gently pull her lower eyelid down, and aim to place the drop in the corner of her eye. Ask her to blink several times after application to allow better absorption of the drops. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. Do not share your child’s drops with others.

Reviewed by Dr Evelyn Lewin 25 February 2015 references
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This document has been developed and peer reviewed by a KIDS HEALTH Advisory Board Representative and is based on expert opinion and the available published literature at the time of review. Information contained in this document is not intended to replace medical advice and any questions regarding a medical diagnosis or treatment should be directed to a medical practitioner.

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