Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is redness and inflammation of the membranes (conjunctiva) covering the whites of the eyes and the membranes on the inner part of the eyelids.
These membranes react to a wide range of bacteria, viruses, allergy-provoking agents, irritants, and toxic agents, as well as to underlying diseases within the body.
Viral and bacterial forms of conjunctivitis are common in childhood, but they occur in adults as well. Pink eye can occur in people of any age. Overall, however, there are many causes of pink eye. These can be classified as either infectious or noninfectious. Pink eye does not cause any changes in vision.
Symptoms of pinkeye include:
- Itchy or burning eyes.
- More tears than usual. The eye may drain a clear or slightly thick, whitish liquid.
- Gray or yellow drainage from the eye. Waking up with the eyelashes of one or both eyes stuck together from this dried drainage is a common symptom of pinkeye.
- Mild sensitivity to light.
You may have symptoms in one eye, both eyes, or the symptoms may spread from one eye to the other eye. When pinkeye is caused by a virus, symptoms usually start in one eye and may then spread to the other eye.
If you think you have pinkeye, call your doctor to find out the best way to treat it. Certain health risks may increase the seriousness of your symptoms.
If you have other symptoms like eye pain or a change in your vision, if you wear contact lenses, or if you have other medical problems, you may have a more serious eye problem. In these cases it is especially important to see a doctor. Young children with pinkeye may have an ear infection, so they also need to see a doctor right away.
Pinkeye is most often caused by a virus. It usually occurs at the same time as or right after you have had a cold. Less commonly, pinkeye can be caused by infection with bacteria.
Dry air, allergies, smoke, and chemicals can also cause pinkeye.
Allergic pink eye
Allergic pink eye symptoms and signs are usually accompanied by intense itching, tearing, and swelling of the eye membranes. Pain is minimal or absent. Frequent causes include seasonal pollens, animal dander, and dust. It is frequently seasonal and accompanied by other typical allergy symptoms such as sneezing, itchy nose, or scratchy throat.
Cold, moist washcloths applied to the eyes and over-the-counterdecongestant eyedrops can provide relief. Your doctor can prescribe stronger medications if these home remedies are not adequate.
Chemical pink eye
Chemical pink eye can result when any irritating substance enters the eyes.
Common offending irritants are
- household cleaners,
- sprays of any kind,
- foreign objects in the eye,
- industrial pollutants.
Prompt, thorough washing of the eyes with very large amounts of water is very important if an irritating substance enters the eye. Your doctor or your local poison-control center should be contacted at once, even if you think the irritant or chemical is safe, as some of the most common household products like bleach and furniture polish can be very damaging.
Persistent pink eye (conjunctivitis) can be a sign of an underlying illness in the body. Most often these are rheumatic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus. Conjunctivitis is also seen in Kawasaki's disease (a rare disease associated with fever in infants and young children) and certain inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease.
Bright redness of the whites of the eyes can also occur when the tiny blood vessels covering the whites of the eyes rupture from trauma or changes in pressure within the head (for example, after forceful laughing or vomiting, when diving under water, or even bending upside down). This condition is called subconjunctival hemorrhage, and while it can appear frightening, it is generally harmless.
This condition is different from the inflammation of the conjunctiva seen with pink eye. It causes a local area of the white portion of the eye (the sclera) to become brilliantly reddened. It does not typically involve the colored portion of the eye (the iris) and does not affect vision.
If your doctor thinks the pinkeye is caused by bacteria, he or she may prescribe antibiotic eyedrops or eye ointment to kill the bacteria. See a picture of how to apply eye drops or eye ointment. With antibiotic treatment, symptoms usually go away in 2 to 3 days.
But antibiotics only work for bacterial pinkeye, not for the more common viral pinkeye. Viraal pinkeye often clears on its own in 7 to 10 days. If your symptoms last longer, call your doctor.
If the pinkeye is caused by an allergy or chemical, it will not go away until you avoid whatever is causing it.
Home treatment of pinkeye symptoms can help you feel more comfortable while the infection goes away.
- Wash your hands often. Always wash them before and after you treat pinkeye or touch your eyes or face.
- Use moist cotton or a clean, wet cloth to remove crust. Wipe from the inside corner of the eye to the outside. Use a clean part of the cloth for each wipe. If the infection is in only one eye, be careful not to spread it to the other eye.
- Put cold or warm wet cloths (whichever feels better) on your eye a few times a day if the eye hurts.
- Do not wear contact lenses until the pinkeye is gone. Sterilize your contacts, and clean your storage case. If you wear disposable contacts, use a new pair when your eye has cleared and it is safe to wear contacts again. Wait at least 2 days after the symptoms are gone before you wear contacts again.
- If the doctor gave you antibiotic eyedrops or ointment, use them as directed. Use the medicine for as long as instructed, even if your eye starts to look better sooner. Keep the bottle tip clean, and do not let it touch the eye area.
- Do not wear eye makeup until the pinkeye is gone. Throw away any eye makeup you were using when you got pinkeye.
- Do not share towels, pillows, or washcloths while you have pinkeye.
- Use allergy eyedrops and medicines to reduce symptoms of pinkeye caused by allergies.
How can you avoid spreading pinkeye?
Pinkeye caused by a virus or bacteria is spread through contact with the eye drainage. Touching an infected eye leaves drainage on your hand. If you touch your other eye or an object when you have drainage on your hand, you can spread the virus or bacteria.
Follow these tips to help prevent the spread of pinkeye:
- Wash your hands before and after you touch your eyes or face or use medicine in your eyes.
- Do not share eye makeup.
- Do not share contact lens equipment, containers, or solutions.
- Do not share eye medicine.
- Do not share towels, bed linens, pillows, or handkerchiefs. Use clean linens, towels, and washcloths each day.
To decide when you should return to work or school, think about pinkeye like you would a cold. Base your decision on how you feel and on whether you might spread pinkeye to other people, especially the very young and the very old.
Some schools ask that children with pinkeye be kept at home until they are better or have started antibiotic treatment.