Author: Dr Julie Fraser, Adelaide, Australia; Chief Editor: Dr Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand, December 2015.
Conjunctivitis is inflammation of the conjunctiva of the eye.
The conjunctiva is the semi-transparent membrane that covers the white part of the eye (the sclera) and lines the inside of the eyelids.
When the conjunctiva is inflamed, the white of the eye appears red. Conjunctivitis is the most likely diagnosis when a patient has a red eye and discharge.
Irritant conjunctivitis is a non-infectious form of conjunctivitis caused by a transient mechanical or chemical insult. It can be acute, relapsing or chronic.
Irritant and traumatic conjunctivitis are associated with:
Irritation is considered minor (eg from swimming pool chlorination or noxious fumes), whereas chemical splash or traumatic conjunctivitis are often more serious.
Conjunctivitis is a diagnosis of exclusion. All forms of conjunctivitis are characterised by:
Severe injury to the eye can involve the cornea (keratitis) or result in penetration of the orbit. The following "red flags" point to more serious diagnoses, such as keratitis, iritis, or angle closure glaucoma:
Irritant or traumatic conjunctivitis can be suspected when:
Symptoms of irritant or traumatic conjunctivitis generally improve spontaneously within 24 hours.
Most forms of conjunctivitis are self-limiting but in certain cases, severe complications may occur. Pain, loss of vision or photophobia require immediate referal to an ophthalmologist.
Complications from irritant or traumatic conjunctivitis include:
Irritant or traumatic conjunctivitis often requires only symptomatic relief, such as topical lubricants, and clears within 24 hours.
Glucocorticoids should only be used under specialist advice to avoid sight-threatening complications.
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