What is pink eye?
Pink eye is redness and swelling of the lining of the eyelid and eye surface. The lining is called the conjunctiva (say "kawn-junk-TY-vuh"), and pink eye is also called conjunctivitis (say "kun-JUNK-tih-VY-tus"). The lining of the eye is normally clear and colourless.
Pink eye is common. It usually spreads easily, especially among children in daycare centres and schools.
Because pink eye is often spread from eye to hand to eye, good handwashing is important. Sharing a face cloth, towel, or other item with a person who has pink eye can spread the infection.
What causes pink eye?
Pink eye 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, pink eye can be caused by infection with bacteria.
Dry air, allergies, smoke, and chemicals can also cause pink eye.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of pink eye include:
- Itchy or burning eyes.
- More tears than usual. The eye may drain a clear or slightly thick, whitish liquid.
- Grey 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 pink eye.
- Mild sensitivity to light (photophobia).
You may have symptoms in one eye, both eyes, or the symptoms may spread from one eye to the other eye. When pink eye is caused by a virus, symptoms usually start in one eye and may then spread to the other eye.
If you think you have pink eye, call your doctor to find out the best way to treat it. And if you are wearing contact lenses, be sure to take them out right away. 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 pink eye may also have an ear infection, so they may need to see a doctor.
How is pink eye diagnosed?
A doctor can usually diagnose pink eye with an eye examination and by asking questions about your symptoms. Sometimes the doctor will use a cotton swab to take some fluid from around your eye so it can be tested for bacteria or other infection.
How is it treated?
If your doctor thinks the pink eye 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 eyedrops or eye ointment. With antibiotic treatment, symptoms usually go away in 2 to 3 days. But antibiotics only work for bacterial pink eye, not for the more common viral pink eye. Viral pink eye often clears on its own in 7 to 10 days. If your symptoms last longer, call your doctor.
If the pink eye is caused by an allergy or chemical, it will not go away until you avoid whatever is causing it.
Home treatment of pink eye symptoms can help you feel more comfortable while the infection goes away.
- Wash your hands often. Always wash them before and after you treat pink eye 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.
- If your eye hurts, close it and put cold or warm wet cloths (whichever feels better) on your eyelid a few times a day.
- Do not wear contact lenses until the pink eye 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 pink eye is gone. Throw away any eye makeup you were using when you got pink eye.
- Do not share towels, pillows, or face cloths while you have pink eye.
- Use allergy eyedrops and medicines to reduce symptoms of pink eye caused by allergies.
How can you avoid spreading pink eye?
Pink eye 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 pink eye:
- 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 face cloths each day.
Some schools ask that children with pink eye be kept at home until they are better or have started antibiotic treatment.
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Current as of: June 26, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine