What is pink eye and how to treat it
Conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, is a condition that can be caused by infection or a reaction to allergens. The term pink eye comes from the fact that it usually causes redness or swelling of the white of the eye.
“You can develop pink eye by coming into contact with the virus or bacterial organism on a surface and then touching your face or eyes,” says Desinee Drakulich, OD, a medical optometrist from Nebraska. “People who wear contact lenses are also more susceptible to pink eye if they don’t wash their hands well when changing their contact lenses or if they wear them beyond recommended use.”
Pink eye caused by viruses is the most common and is highly contagious. These infections usually go away on their own after about seven to 14 days.
Symptoms of viral conjunctivitis
- Redness in the whites of the eyes
- Protruding blood vessels
- Pain or burning sensation
Because most cases of viral conjunctivitis are mild, treatments are rarely recommended unless you have a very severe form. Over-the-counter drops like artificial tears can be used to help soothe your eyes.
As the virus is highly contagious, you should be careful not to touch your face or eyes when around other people to avoid spreading the virus.
Treatment of viral conjunctivitis
- Over-the-counter artificial tears
- Frequent hand washing
- Change pillowcases and sheets frequently
- Avoid sharing towels
- Avoid close contact with others, such as touching or shaking hands
Conjunctivitis caused by a bacterial infection is more common in young children. “Adults rarely get this form of pink eye. They typically come into contact with this type of bacteria fairly frequently over the years and have become immune to it,” says Dr. Drakulich.
Although not as contagious as viral conjunctivitis, it can spread quickly in a daycare or school environment, as children tend to touch everything around them as well as their face and eyes, notes Dr. Drakulich.
Symptoms of bacterial conjunctivitis differ slightly from a viral infection. The telltale sign of a bacterial infection is a green and yellow discharge. It will also be itchy and usually not painful.
Symptoms of bacterial conjunctivitis
- Red and puffy eyes
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Green and yellow discharge from the eyes
Bacterial conjunctivitis is treated with a topical antibiotic. “Although it may get better without treatment, an antibiotic will shorten the duration of the infection, prevent complications and decrease the spread to others,” says Dr. Drakulich. “I strongly recommend getting your child diagnosed and treated. If left untreated, the infection could become more serious. This may require hospitalization and cause permanent damage to vision. If your child develops a fever, this is often a sign of a more serious infection and needs medical evaluation.”
Dr. Drakulich recommends keeping your child home for the first 24 to 48 hours after starting an antibiotic to reduce the spread.
Treatment of bacterial conjunctivitis
- Topical antibiotic
- Frequent hand washing
- Frequently wash pillowcases, sheets and bedding
- Avoid sharing towels
Allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious and occurs more often in people with allergies, asthma, or eczema. Antibiotics will not improve the condition, but may help relieve symptoms by soothing the eyes and reducing itching.
Treatment of allergic conjunctivitis
- Allergy medications
- Over-the-counter allergy eye drops
Other causes of conjunctivitis include:
Fungal conjunctivitis is usually associated with the ingress of organic matter into the eye, such as a tree branch, and injury. This type of infection can be very difficult to treat and should be evaluated by your doctor immediately.
Symptoms of fungal conjunctivitis
- Red and painful eye
- Inflammation of the eye
What if my pink eye keeps coming back?
If your pink eye comes back after treatment, it’s likely a sign that it wasn’t treated appropriately and needs further evaluation, advises Dr. Drakulich. It can also come back repeatedly due to allergies or dry eyes. Dry eye is a condition caused when your eyes cannot provide adequate lubrication. It can make your eyes red, inflamed, and stinging or burning.
When to see a doctor for pink eye
- Your child has normal symptoms of conjunctivitis, in addition to fever
- Vision problems
- Extreme eye pain
- Weakened immune system or other chronic medical conditions
- Bacterial infection that does not go away after five days
Pink eye can become serious if not treated properly. Not sure what’s causing your pink eye or if it won’t go away? Call 800.922.0000 to make an appointment with an ophthalmologist.