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Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis)

Pink eye or conjunctivitis is one of the most common eye infections, especially in children.  The infection is an acute inflammation which causes redness and swelling of the conjunctiva, which is the clear mucous membrane that lines the eyelid and the surface of the eye. Pink eye can be caused by a virus, bacteria or even allergies such as pollen, chlorine in swimming pools, and ingredients in cosmetics or other products that come in contact with the eyes.  Some forms of pink eye can be highly contagious and easily spread in schools and at home.

Symptoms of Pink Eye

Pink eye develops when the conjunctiva or thin transparent layer of tissue that lines the eyelid and the white part of the eye becomes inflamed. Symptoms can occur in one or both eyes and include:

  • Redness in the white part of the eye
  • Itching or burning
  • Discharge
  • Tearing
  • Swollen eyelids and
  • Crusty eyes in the morning

Causes of Pink Eye

There are three main types of pink eye infections: bacterial, viral and allergic conjunctivitis.

Viral Conjunctivitis

Viral Conjunctivitis is usually caused by an adenovirus, the same virus that produces the recognizable red and watery eyes, sore throat, cough and runny nose of the common cold or upper respiratory infection. Viral conjunctivitis is highly contagious usually spread because of poor hygiene especially a lack of hand washing.

Symptoms of viral conjunctivitis usually last from five days to a week but may last longer. Since there is generally no medical treatment for a viral infection you have to wait for the infection to run its course. To avoid spreading the infection to others, it is recommended to stay home from school or work until the symptoms disappear which is usually after 3-5 days or up to a week.

Viral conjunctivitis typically causes a light discharge and very watery, red eyes. To relieve discomfort, you can apply cool compresses to the eyes and artificial tears.

Bacterial Pink Eye

Bacterial pink eye is usually caused by Staphylococcus or Streptococcus bacteria and is often characterized by a significant amount of yellow, sticky discharge. Also contagious, bacterial pink eye can be picked up from bacteria found anywhere and often spread to the eye by touching them with unclean hands.  Contact lens wearers are at a higher risk for bacterial pink eye due to the handling of lenses and unclean contact lens cases.

Treatment is usually administered by antibiotic eye drops which should begin to show improvement after three or four days, however the infection can also resolve itself after a week to 10 days without treatment. If you do use antibiotic drops, you can return to work or school 24 hours after you being treatment.

Allergic Conjunctivitis

Allergic conjunctivitis is not infectious or contagious as it is an allergic reaction to something in the environment such as pollen, pet dander or smoke. Symptoms, which occur in both eyes, include redness, itching and excessive tearing.

The first step in treating allergic conjunctivitis is to remove or avoid the irritant, if possible. Applying cool compresses and artificial tears can help to relieve discomfort in mild cases. In more severe cases, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications and antihistamines might be

prescribed. In cases of persistent allergic conjunctivitis, topical steroid eye drops are used.

Pink Eye Prevention

In all cases of pink eye, practicing good hygiene is the best way to prevent from catching and spreading the infection.  Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently and don’t touch your eyes with your hands, especially if you work with or around small children.

If you have allergies, try to stay indoors on days with a high pollen count and to keep doors and windows closed.  Inside the house, clean air duct filters, vacuum and dust frequently to reduce the presence of allergens.

We asked Dr. Lesslie about Pink Eye- here is what she had to say:

Oh my gosh, my eye is red and goopy! Do I have pink eye?

Pink eye is a generic term for an eye that is pink or red.  It is important to determine the cause of irritation causing your eyes to become red.  Pink eye can be bacterial, viral or allergic in nature.  In the eye world, we call it conjunctivitis.

What are the symptoms of conjunctivitis?

Spring and Fall are times when allergies are at a peak causing red, watery and itchy eyes. Sometime mucus is present causing eyes to feel sticky.  Eyelid swelling is not uncommon. Usually, allergies affect both eyes equally, so both eyes may appear pink.
Viruses typically start in one eye and may or may not move to the other eye. Symptoms are similar to allergy eyes.
Bacterial infections usually tend to be a little more red and have a yellowish discharge. Typically, there is no itching with bacterial conjunctivitis.

Am I contagious if I have conjunctivitis/pink eye? 

Not always!  It is important to determine the underlying cause.  If it is allergic, you can safely be around family, friends and colleagues. If it is determined to be either viral or bacterial conjunctivitis, then you have to be careful to not pass it to others.  I recommend these following things to my patients to reduce passing it on to others: frequently wash hands, use Lysol wipes on commonly touched surfaces, wash pillow case and any towels or linens daily until the infection is gone, and throw away tissues used to dab tears or mucus from the eye.

Is pink eye/conjunctivitis dangerous?

Not typically. Usually, conjunctivitis will resolve within 10-14 days on it’s own.  If diagnosed and treated by a doctor it will clear sooner than that.