What is Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis)?
Pink eye (conjunctivitis) happens when a protective membrane in the eye (conjunctiva) becomes inflamed. It causes the white of the eye to appear red in color.
It is thought to affect up to six million people annually in the US, at a cost in excess of 850 million dollars. (1)
It can be caused by bacteria, viruses, allergens or irritants. Both viral and bacterial pink eye (conjunctivitis) are contagious. (2)
The conjunctiva is a thin, transparent membrane which covers the white of the eye and the inner surfaces of the eyelids. When it becomes infected or is irritated it becomes swollen and red.
There are some common symptoms associated with pink eye (conjunctivitis), these include:
The whites of the eyes will be red or pink in color, giving conjunctivitis it’s alternate name of pink eye.
The eyelids, both upper and lower, as well as the conjunctiva, might be swollen.
The production of tears from the eyes might be more than a person would normally experience.
The eyes will likely feel very itchy and irritated. A burning sensation can also be present. It could feel like you have something in your eye and the urge to rub them will feel very strong.
Rubbing the eyes can cause the infection to spread from one eye to another.
A discharge which could be mucus or pus will be evident in the affected eyes. The eyelids and lashes will be crusted, and sometimes stuck together. This is especially apparent on waking in the morning.
Another symptom is a photosensitivity. Your eyes might hurt if you look at a bright light source.
The eyes might feel uncomfortable or painful when moved. Severe headaches might also be present, although this is a less common symptom. (3, 4, 5)
We have mentioned there are different causes of pink eye and there are specific symptoms associated with each. These are:
Viral Pink Eye
This is most often caused by viruses such as the common cold, flu or a respiratory infection. This type of pink eye is contagious.
It can spread as a result of contact with someone who has been coughing or sneezing near you. It is also the result of a virus travelling along the body’s own mucous membranes. These membranes connect the nose, throat, tear ducts, lungs and conjunctiva.
Symptoms associated with this include the common ones noted above. It tends to start in one eye and spread to the other, and the discharge is watery as opposed to thick. (6, 7)
Bacterial Pink Eye
This condition is commonly associated with a streptococcal or staphylococcal infection from the skin, ears or respiratory system. It could be the result of physical contact with another person who has a bacterial infection. Other ways of transmitting the bacteria include touching the eyes with hands which are not clean, or contact with insects. The use of makeup or facial lotions that are infected with bacteria also result in this type of conjunctivitis.
Another cause could be sharing someone else’s makeup or using contact lenses which have not been properly cleaned.
Again, the common symptoms will be seen. Any discharge will be yellowish in color (pus). This might cause the eyelids to stick together. (8, 9)
Allergic Pink Eye
This tends to happen in people who suffer from seasonal allergies. It usually accompanies other allergic symptoms like sneezing, runny eyes, itchy nose and irritated throat.
There is another type of allergic pink eye caused by the long term presence of a foreign object in the eye. Called giant papillary conjunctivitis, it can be caused by not replacing soft contact lenses as frequently as an individual should. People with false eyes (prosthetics) might also experience this type of conjunctivitis.
The symptoms include extreme itchiness accompanied by redness and swelling, and generally affects both eyes. (10, 11)
Irritant Pink Eye
Things like exposure to chemicals, chlorine in swimming pools and pollution can irritate the eyes causing pink eye (conjunctivitis). Again, the common symptoms might be present, but discharge will be watery and consist of mucous. (12, 13)
Newborn Pink Eye
Called ophthalmia neonatorum, this severe type of conjunctivitis is usually bacterial in origin. It can also be caused by a blocked tear duct or a reaction to antibacterial eye drops given at birth.
Gonorrhea or chlamydia present in the birth canal can cause pink eye in newborns. Eyelids might appear puffy, red and swollen and medical treatment should be sought immediately. (14)
There are no stages of pink eye (conjunctivitis), it can, however, be divided into two types, infectious and non infectious.
Infectious pink eye is the result of bacterial or viral infections.
Non contagious pink eye can be caused by allergens, irritants or immune conditions in the body. (15)
The aim of treatments for this condition are to relieve the associated symptoms, clear infection and reduce inflammation.
They also aim to prevent people spreading contagious types of pink eye.
Treatments will depend on which type of pink eye a person has. These include:
Viral Pink Eye
Viral conjunctivitis usually cannot be treated by using medications such as eye drops or ointments. It can take anything up to two to three weeks for a virus, and the associated infection, to clear.
Cold compresses or artificial tear solutions might help relieve symptoms. In severe cases steroidal eye drops might help reduce inflammation.
If conjunctivitis is caused by the herpes virus there are medications available which can treat it. (16)
Bacterial Pink Eye
This type of infection is generally treated with antibiotic eye drops or ointments. These medications can sometimes be effective in relieving symptoms and clearing infection in as little as three to four days.
Even though it may appear that the condition has improved, it is important to complete any course of treatment as prescribed. (17)
Allergic Pink Eye
In these cases identifying and removing the irritant or allergen is the first step. Cold compresses and artificial tear drops might help relieve symptoms.
There are also prescribed medications such as non steroidal anti inflammatories and antihistamines which can help. On occasion, topical eye drops containing steroids might be used. (18)
Chemical Pink Eye
The usual treatment for this condition is to carefully wash the eyes out with a saline solution. Topical steroids might also be needed for chemical conjunctivitis.
Injuries which are severe, particularly in the case of alkali burns, are medical emergencies and need to be treated immediately. Delays can result in damage to eyesight, scarring and even loss of sight.
Whenever a chemical comes in contact with the eye, flush it immediately with water for several minutes, and then seek medical help. (19)
What is pink eye? Pink eye (conjunctivitis) happens when a protective membrane in the eye (conjunctiva) becomes inflamed. It causes the white of the eye to appear red in color.
What are the signs of pink eye? The main sign of this condition is swollen, red itchy eyes. This could be accompanied by a discharge which can be clear or yellowish in color.
How do you develop pink eye? This condition can be caused by a bacterial or viral infection. It can also be the result of an allergen, irritant or chemicals.
How are you diagnosed for pink eye? A physical examination will generally indicate the presence of this condition, and medical history can help identify the cause.
What is the best treatment for pink eye? Treatment will depend on the cause of the pink eye (conjunctivitis). Viral infections will generally clear of their own accord, bacterial infections will be treated with antibiotics. Allergic conjunctivitis involves removal of the allergen and treatment to relieve symptoms. If the cause is a chemical or irritant then flush with water and seek medical advice. There are also vaccines available that prevent some conditions like rubella, measles, chicken pox, shingles and influenza. These diseases are associated with conjunctivitis. (20)
What are the long term complications of pink eye? Untreated, certain types of conjunctivitis can result in sight impairment or loss.
Is pink eye considered a disability? While this condition is not considered a disability, resulting loss or impairment of sight can be. (21)
Is there a cure for pink eye? In majority of cases treatment of this condition is successful.
Is pink eye life threatening? This is a common condition which is not considered life threatening. There are rare instances when it might result in loss of sight. (22)
Pink eye (conjunctivitis) is an inflammation of a membrane in the eye (conjunctiva) causing the white of the eye to appear red in color.
There are different types of this condition. These include infectious, caused by bacteria or viruses, and non infectious, caused by allergens, chemicals, irritants or underlying medical conditions.
The symptoms include itchiness and discharge from the eyes, as well as the characteristic pinkness in the whites of the eye.
Fortunately, most cases of pink eye (conjunctivitis) will either clear of the own accord or respond well to treatment. There are also vaccines which help prevent some associated viral and bacterial conditions.