Everything You Need to Know About Pink Eye

by | Aug 30, 2013 | News

My child has a pink eye. What is a pink eye, what causes it, and what are the common symptoms? 

pink eye graphic

There is a transparent mucous membrane, called the conjunctiva, which covers the white part of your eyeball andalso lines the inside of your eyelids. When the eye is irritated, inflamed, or infected, the small blood vessels in the conjunctiva become larger and more visible making the white of the eyes appears reddish or pink. This is what is most commonly referred to as ‘pink eye’ or conjunctivitis (inflammation of the conjunctiva).

The signs and symptoms will vary depending on the cause and the severity of the conjunctivitis but they usually include redness and swelling of the white part of the eye or eyelids, tearing, itching, burning, mild eye pain, increased sensitivity to light, crusting of eyelids or lashes, white, yellow or green eye discharge, and blurred vision.

Although many things can cause the eyes to be red and irritated, ‘pink eye’ usually refers to an inflammation of the conjunctiva due to one of the following causes:

  1. Viral Conjunctivitis is caused by a virus, similar to the common cold, and is very contagious. Most common symptoms are red, watery, and itchy eyes with sensitivity to light in one or both eyes. The symptoms are most pronounced in the first three to five days and slowly resolve on their own over the following one to two weeks. Often, ‘cold like symptoms’ such as a cough or runny nose are also present. It is usually spread by direct contact, coughing, or sneezing.
  2. Bacterial Conjunctivitis is caused by bacteria and is also contagious. Most common symptoms are red eyes with a sticky yellow or greenish-yellow discharge. One or both eyes may be affected and cold like symptoms may be present. The symptoms last for one to two weeks and usually require antibiotic treatment. If not treated, it can potentially cause serious vision threatening problems. It is usually spread by direct contact to the eyes with infected hands.
  3. Allergic Conjunctivitis is caused by irritants such as pollen, dust, and animal dander. Most common symptoms are red, itchy, and watery eyes. It is not contagious, both eyes are usually affected, and it may be an isolated incident, seasonal, or year round. If the symptoms are bothersome to the patient, medication can be used to relieve the symptoms.

Pink eye can occur in people of any age, although bacterial conjunctivitis is more common in children. Viral conjunctivitis is the most common form of pink eye.

How is it treated? Are antibiotics necessary?

Depending on the cause of the conjunctivitis, medication may or may not be prescribed. It is difficult to tell the type of conjunctivitis you have by symptoms alone so it is important to visit an optometrist for an evaluation. Medication is not usually used to treat viral conjunctivitis as it will resolve on its own and antibiotics do not work against a virus. Cool wet compresses and lubricating drops several times a day can help relieve some of the symptoms while the virus takes its course.

Anti-allergy eye drops or tablets may help shorten or prevent bouts of allergic conjunctivitis along with avoidance of the allergen. Sometimes these medications can be started before the allergy season to prevent the symptoms from flaring up.

Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial conjunctivitis in either eye drop or ointment form. Warm wet compresses and gentle lid scrubs can help remove the debris and mucus which may accumulate on the eye lids and lashes. If medication is prescribed, be sure to follow all of your doctors instructions and take the medication as instructed and for the full length of time it was prescribed, even if you feel better. Not following instructions properly may result in a recurrence of the infection.

Do not use medication that is prescribed for someone else or that was prescribed for you but for an old infection as they it may be inappropriate for your current problem or contaminated. Do not touch the tip of the medication to the eye as it may contaminate the whole bottle.

Many people have a difficulty putting drops into a child’s eye. Ask your child to lay down with their eyes closed, place the recommended amount of drops into the inner corner of the eye, next to the bridge of the nose, and then have them open their eyes so that the medication can flow into the eye.

How can people limit the spread of pink eye?

The best way to limit the spread and prevent pink eye is good hygiene. Cover your nose and mouth with the crook of your elbow and not your palms when coughing or sneezing. Wash your hands frequently, especially when spending time in public places and before you touch your eyes, including putting on and taking off contact lenses. Never share personal items such as washcloths, hand towels, tissues, pillows, contact lenses, or eye drops. Frequently clean surfaces such as countertops, door handles, faucet handles, and phones with antiseptic cleaner. Wear swimming goggles when swimming and never wear contact lenses when swimming or in the hot tub. If you have a cold or pink eye, stay home from work or school until the contagious stages have passed. If the pink eye is in only one eye, avoid touching your unaffected eye until the pink eye is resolved.

When is it safe to return to school or work?

Your optometrist will be able to tell you if the pink eye is contagious and when you can return to work or school. In general, it is usually safe to return to work or school after three to five days.

Are any special precautions required for contact lens wearers?

Do not wear your contact lenses while you have a cold of any kind or if you have pink eye. Wash your hands with soap and water any time you insert or remove your contact lenses. Be sure to wash out and dry your contact lens case after every use and replace your case monthly and solution in the case daily. Rub your lenses with multipurpose disinfecting contact lens solution or the solution recommended by your doctor before storing it at night. Throw out your contact lenses as instructed by your doctor and do not use them for a longer time than indicated. Do not swim, shower, or enter a hot tub in your contact lenses. Sometimes antibiotics are prescribed for contact lens wearing patients even if it is not bacterial conjunctivitis to prevent a bacterial infection from forming so see your eye doctor right away if you think you have pink eye.