BACKGROUND: Acute infective conjunctivitis is a self-limiting condition that commonly presents to primary care. Patients' understanding of conjunctivitis, their reasons for attendance, and their responses to different management strategies, are unknown. AIM: To explore patients' understanding of conjunctivitis and its management. DESIGN OF STUDY: Qualitative study using semi-structured one-to-one interviews. SETTING: Three general practices in Hampshire and Wiltshire. METHOD: Twenty-five patients presenting with conjunctivitis at their general practices were interviewed. Main outcome measures were patients' perceptions of conjunctivities, their experience and knowledge of the disease, beliefs regarding treatment, and their responses to different management strategies and a patient information leaflet. RESULTS: Patients regarded conjunctivitis as a minor illness, although some considered it might become more serious if not treated. Nearly all were confident at recognising conjunctivitis. They stated a preference for not taking medication, but believed that conjunctivitis would not clear up without treatment. However, they were open to alternative management approaches; for example, the delayed prescription approach, because they trusted their general practitioners' (GPs') judgement. Once they were aware of the self-limiting nature of conjunctivitis, patients felt they would prefer to wait a few days to see if the condition improved before seeking medical advice, even if this resulted in a few more days of symptoms. CONCLUSION: Patients who attend their general practices with conjunctivitis present for treatment because they are not aware of its self-limiting nature. Providing patients with this information may enable patients, enhance self-management, and reduce the use of topical antibiotics and the demand for urgent general practice appointments.