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What is Pink Eye?

Conjunctivitis has become well-known as pink eye because the condition typically causes the white of the eye to turn pink or red. The pink or reddish color is a result of the inflammation of the conjunctiva, which is the clear, thin membrane that lines the inside of the eyelid and white portion of the eyeball.

Causes of Pink Eye

The most common causes of pink eye are viruses, bacteria, allergens, and irritants. Other, less common causes include contact lens wear and fungi. The exact cause can be difficult to determine since some symptoms may be the same regardless of the source.

Viral
Viral conjunctivitis, a virus infection of the eye that is very contagious, typically begins in one eye and then spreads to the other within days. Discharge from the eye(s) is usually watery rather than thick.

Bacterial
Bacterial conjunctivitis, a bacterial infection of the eye that sometimes occurs with an ear infection, is more common in children than adults. Like viral conjunctivitis, it is also highly contagious. According to a study, this form of pink eye is the leading cause of children staying home from daycare or school.1 The discharge, or pus, associated with bacterial conjunctivitis can cause eyelashes to stick together.

Allergens
Allergic conjunctivitis is a result of the body's reaction to allergens, such as pollen from trees, dust mites, or makeup. Unlike viral and bacterial conjunctivitis, this form of pink eye is not contagious, but it does usually occur in both eyes. A discharge is not typically associated with this form. Instead, the eyes can become swollen, intensely itchy, and watery.

Irritants
Irritants that cause conjunctivitis can include a foreign body (like an eye lash), chemicals, fumes, dust, or smoke. Contact lenses that are worn longer than recommended or not cleaned can also lead to this form of pink eye. While not contagious, eyes can become watery and produce a mucus discharge.

little girl looking through a magnifying glass

Symptoms of Pink Eye

Despite the cause of pink eye, the symptoms generally are the same and can include:

  • White of the eye(s) turning pink or red 
  • Eyelids or/and the conjunctiva swelling 
  • Tear production increase 
  • Urge to rub eye(s) 
  • Feeling like a foreign body is in the eye(s) 
  • Itching, irritation, or burning of the eye(s) 
  • Discharge (pus or mucus) secreting from the eye(s) – sometime causing eyelashes to stick together 
  • Eyelids or lashes crusting, especially in the morning 
  • Contact lenses feeling uncomfortable and/or not staying in place when worn 

Newborns with pink eye symptoms should see their pediatrician immediately. An infection, irritation, or a blocked tear duct can be the cause of neonatal conjunctivitis in a newborn. If the cause is an infection, neonatal conjunctivitis can be very serious.

Diagnosing Pink Eye

Eye redness or swelling is a clear indicator of pink eye, but other symptoms can vary depending on the root cause. However, since many of the symptoms are similar, it can be difficult for a healthcare professional to determine the exact cause.

When seeking treatment at a MedExpress center, patient history, symptoms, an examination of the eye(s), etc. will be used to come up with a diagnosis. If deemed necessary, a sample of discharge from the infected eye(s) may be collected and sent to a lab in order to determine the form of infection.

Treating Pink Eye

In many cases, pink eye will clear on its own, but here are a few considerations for instances when you should seek professional help:

  • Newborns with any pink eye symptoms 
  • Anyone with a weakened immune system from HIV infection, cancer treatment, or other medical conditions/treatments 
  • Anyone with an eye injury in which the eye could be scratched or there is a possibility of a foreign body in the eye 
  • Intense redness or pain in the eye(s) 
  • Sensitivity to light or blurred vision that does not improve when discharge is cleared from the eye(s) 
  • Any symptoms that get worse or do not improve 

Of the four main forms, viral conjunctivitis is normally mild and clears up in approximately seven to 14 days without treatment. In some cases, the infection can take up to three weeks to clear up. For the most serious cases, a healthcare processional may prescribe antiviral medication.

For bacterial conjunctivitis, a provider may prescribe an antibiotic, which is usually administered as eye drops or an ointment. Mild bacterial conjunctivitis may get better without antibiotic treatment, often improving within two to five days.

Allergic conjunctivitis can also be treated with certain eye drops (topical antihistamine and vasoconstrictors) or allergy medications. However, this form may improve when the person removes herself or himself from the environment containing the allergen.

The professionals at your local MedExpress center can help identify treatment options for your form of pink eye – whether it's viral, bacterial, allergens, or irritants.

MedExpress employee talking to a parent and child

Managing Discomfort

To help manage your discomfort, there are a few possible actions you can take, such as using cold compresses and artificial tears, which can be purchased over the counter without a prescription, to soothe the inflammation and dryness. When using a cold compress, it's important not to touch both eyes with the same cloth. Using a different cloth for each eye reduces the risk of spreading the infection from one eye to the other.

Stopping the Spread

When pink eye is caused by a virus or bacteria, it is very contagious and spreads easily and quickly from person to person. You can reduce the risk of getting or spreading pink eye by following these basic prevention steps:

  • Wash your hands 
  • Avoid touching or rubbing your eyes 
  • Avoid sharing makeup, contact lenses and containers, and eyeglasses 
  • Stay home from work or school 

If you wear contact lenses, you should stop wearing them until the infection clears. It's recommended to start with a fresh pair of contacts, or clean your current pair thoroughly before reusing.


References:

1 Academic Emergency Medicine Journal: Clinical features of bacterial conjunctivitis in children. Published January 2007. Accessed October 12, 2018.

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