What is pink eye?

Pink eye, also commonly known as conjunctivitis, occurs when the surface of your eyeball and inner lining of your eyelid become inflamed.

Bacteria, viruses, allergies, irritants and other underlying infectious or noninfectious diseases can cause pink eye.

Although conjunctivitis can occur in adults, it more commonly affects children.

Causes of pink eye

Pink eye is most commonly caused by a viral infection but can also be caused by a bacterial infection.

Staphylococci, streptococci, gonococci or chlamydia are common bacterial causes of conjunctivitis.

Viral conjunctivitis can be caused by a variety of viruses such as adenoviruses.

The virus or bacteria from an infected person’s eye can spread through contact with skin, eyewear, cosmetics and cosmetic brushes, linens or towels. Pink eye can even spread from one eye to the other in the same person.

In cases when an infection is not present, pink eye can be contributed to:

  • Dry eyes
  • Allergies
  • Chemicals, smoke or foreign objects in the eye

Allergic conjunctivitis is caused by the body’s reaction to allergens such as pollen from trees, plants, grasses, weeds, medicine, cosmetics or molds. Allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious.

Risk factors for pink eye

Risk of viral or bacterial pink eye can be reduced with proper hygiene, disinfection and by eliminating contact with others who have the condition.

Risk factors for non-infectious pink eye include:

  • Dry eyes — having naturally dry eyes or not protecting the eyes in windy or dry environments can contribute to pink eye.
  • Allergies — those who have pollen, mold or other allergies are likely to develop pink eye as a response to exposure of allergens.
  • Use of contact lenses

Symptoms of pink eye

Symptoms of pink eye vary depending on the cause of the irritation.

Viral pink eye

Symptoms of viral pink eye include:

  • Watery discharge that resemble tears
  • Runny nose
  • Sinus congestion
  • Puffy or swollen eyelids
  • Sensitivity to light

Viral conjunctivitis is highly contagious and will remain transmittable and can cause symptoms for as long as two weeks.

Bacterial pink eye

Symptoms of bacterial pink eye include:

  • Red, itchy or burning eye
  • Tearing
  • Thick green or yellow eye discharge that turns crusty overnight
  • Swollen lymph nodes above the jaw (in front of ears)
  • Swelling

Symptoms of allergic conjunctivitis are most common during allergy season in a patient who has other allergic rhinitis symptoms such as hay fever, asthma or eczema.

Diagnosis of pink eye

Pink eye is diagnosed by a primary care provider who will ask about your symptoms and examine your eye. Typically, he or she can determine the cause (viral, bacterial or allergen) based on your symptoms. To confirm the cause, your doctor may collect a sample of the discharge to determine how to most effectively treat your case.

Treatments for pink eye

Your doctor will prescribe a treatment plan based on the cause of your case of pink eye.

If you have viral pink eye, antibiotics are not indicated, but a doctor visit is recommended to confirm that you don’t have other similar eye conditions. Warm compresses can relieve symptoms of conjunctivitis as the virus runs its course.

If bacterial conjunctivitis is suspected, antibiotic eye drops will be prescribed. You should replace eye cosmetics and disinfect eyewear or eye care products in order to prevent spreading the infection. Warm compresses to the eyes can relieve symptoms and remove the crusty discharge.

Treatment for the symptoms of pink eye caused by allergens include:

  • Artificial tears or eye drops
  • Cold or warm compress to reduce swelling
  • Antihistamines — If allergies are the culprit, an over-the-counter allergy pill will help prevent eye irritation

Recovery from pink eye

Viral conjunctivitis typically will clear up on its own within a week. If symptoms last longer than 10 days, the infection may be bacterial. You are generally no longer contagious once symptoms of pink eye are gone.

Recovery from bacterial conjunctivitis can take up to two weeks, with the assistance of antibiotic treatment. With bacterial pink eye, after 24 hours on antibiotics, you won’t spread the pink eye to others.

Allergic conjunctivitis and other cases of pinkeye usually resolve within 1-2 days of exposure to allergens or other substances that have irritated the eye.

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