Latest Health News

Pink Eye: Causes, Treatment and Prevention

Pink eye is a form of inflammation that causes the whites of the eye to become red or pink.  When pink eye – also known as conjunctivitis – is caused by a viral or bacterial infection, it is highly contagious.  The condition may also be caused by allergies or irritants. 

Our eyes have a thin membrane – the conjunctiva – that lines the white part of the eye, as well as the inside of the eyelid.  When small blood vessels in the conjunctiva become irritated, they also become more visible.  This causes the eye to appear red or pink.

In addition to the color change in the eye, conjunctivitis causes other common symptoms:

  • Itchiness
  • Burning
  • Discharge in the eye, such as pus or tears
  • A crusty feeling in the eyes that may make it difficult to open them when you wake up

“Pink eye causes irritating symptoms, but it does not affect your vision.  Because there are several possible causes of conjunctivitis, it’s good to know the characteristics of each so you know when to go see your primary care provider for a diagnosis and treatment,” says Dr. Amber Lesley, an internal medicine physician in Fort Worth. 

Viral Conjunctivitis

A viral infection is the most common cause of pink eye.  Several different viruses can lead to pink eye, including the viruses that cause the flu, the common cold and other respiratory infections. 

Viral conjunctivitis often begins in one eye and then spreads to the other.  Discharge from the eye is more likely to be watery than a thick pus. 

As with any virus, antibiotics will not help with viral conjunctivitis.  The only thing to do is let the virus run its course and manage the symptoms as best as possible.  Treatments for pink eye symptoms include use of artificial tear eyedrops, using a cold or warm compress on the eye and gently cleaning any gunk out of the eye with a wet cloth. 

Viral conjunctivitis is highly contagious.  To reduce the chances of spreading it to others, as well as the possibility of a reinfection, do the following: 

  • Wash hands frequently with soap and water
  • Avoid touching your eyes
  • Use clean towels and washcloths each day and do not let others use them
  • Change the pillowcase as often as possible
  • Dispose of used eye products, such as mascara
  • Do not share eye products

People who wear contact lenses should discontinue wearing them during a bout with conjunctivitis. 

Bacterial Conjunctivitis

Pink eye caused by bacteria is characterized by a thick discharge (pus) and is sometimes accompanied by an ear infection.  This form of conjunctivitis is more common in children than adults. 

While bacterial conjunctivitis will often clear up on its own within a few days, treatment may be helpful to speed up the pink eye’s departure.

“Sometimes, we can diagnose bacterial pink eye based upon symptoms and medical history,” says Dr. Harry Rosenthal, an ophthalmologist with offices in Fort Worth and Southlake.   “Other times, we may collect a sample of discharge from the infected eye and test it in the lab to determine if it is bacterial or viral.”

Following a diagnosis of bacterial conjunctivitis, your health care provider may prescribe an antibiotic in the form of eyedrops or ointment to treat the infection.  This medication may alleviate symptoms, shorten the illness and reduce the time you are contagious. 

As with viral pink eye, the bacterial form is highly contagious.  Take similar precautions to reduce the odds of spreading it to others. 

Allergic Conjunctivitis

Allergic conjunctivitis occurs when an allergen, such as pollen, causes the body to release histamines as part of a natural immune response.  Histamines can inflame the eyes, in addition to causing sneezing, sore throat and other common allergy symptoms.

Unlike bacterial and viral conjunctivitis, pink eye caused by allergens is not contagious.  Allergy medicines can help prevent the onset of allergic conjunctivitis, and allergy eye drops can help mitigate symptoms. 

Other Causes

There are a lot of irritants in the environment that can irritate eyes and cause conjunctivitis.  Exposure to chemicals – splashed directly in the eye or through fumes – can cause pink eye.  Any foreign object, such as eyelash, that lodges in the eye can lead to pink eye.  Other common irritants that may result in pink eye include smoke, dust and mold. 

In most of these cases, flushing out the affected eye with water is an effective way to treat the symptoms.  However, if the eye was exposed to a harsh chemical, such as lye, you should see a health care provider right away.

People who wear contact lenses need to make sure their contacts are cleaned frequently or replaced if they’re the disposable kind.  Wearing the same contacts for too long or without cleaning can lead to irritation and pink eye.

“Pink eye is not uncommon and is usually not cause for great concern,” says Dr. Matthew Hammons, an ophthalmologist who specializes in oculoplastic surgery at locations in Fort Worth and Arlington.  “However, it is often highly contagious, so it is best to check with your health care provider on what treatment is appropriate. In addition, always take proper precautions to prevent spread to others.” 

This article has been reviewed and approved by a panel of Privia Medical Group North Texas physicians. 

This article contains information sourced from:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Mayo Clinic

Recent Posts