Pink eye is a common and treatable eye condition in children and adults. Roughly three million cases of pink eye occur annually in the U.S. Treatment is not always necessary, and the course of therapy depends on the underlying cause.

According to Peter J. Polack, M.D., F.A.C.S., a fellowship-trained ophthalmologist specializing in refractive surgery, cornea and external diseases, pink eye refers to an infection of the eye, known as conjunctivitis, which is usually caused by a virus.

What Causes Pink Eye?

Pink eye is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the thin clear tissue that lies over the white part of the eye and lines the inside of the eyelid. Pink eye is typically brought on by a bacterial or viral infection. Allergic reactions or exposure to irritants can also lead to pink eye. However, isolating the exact cause of conjunctivitis can prove challenging as the symptoms of pink eye are usually similar regardless of the source. 

What is Pink Eye

An array of viruses cause viral conjunctivitis; however, adenovirus and herpesvirus are the most common. Viral conjunctivitis can also present with an upper respiratory tract infection, cold, or sore throat.

Bacterial conjunctivitis is caused by infection of the eye with bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pneumonia, or Haemophilus.

An allergy to pollen, dust mites, molds, or animal dander can activate allergic conjunctivitis.

Irritants like shampoo, smoke, pool chlorine, pollution, or contact lenses can also bring about conjunctivitis.

Symptoms of Pink Eye

The obvious sign of conjunctivitis is an eye with a pink or reddish appearance. Other symptoms of pink eye depend on the type of conjunctivitis you have and can include:

  • Puffy and bloodshot eyes
  • Pus or discharge that may stick the eyelids together
  • Watery eyes
  • A scratchy or gritty feeling in the eyes
  • Severe itchy or burning eyes
  • Widened (dilated) vessels in the clear tissue covering the white of the eye

Treatment and Prevention

Like the common cold, there is no cure for pink eye normally caused by viruses. Many cases of conjunctivitis are benign and will typically clear up on their own without prescription medication. Symptomatic relief is recommended including cold compresses and vasoconstrictor/decongestant drops such as Naphcon A. 

Antibiotic drops may be indicated in small children or infants as they are at risk of getting bacterial infections. In many cases, symptom relief can be achieved by using artificial tears for dryness. Some pink eye viruses can also affect the cornea resulting in blurry vision, sometimes requiring treatment with steroid drops. 

Patients should seek medical attention if they experience any of the following:

  • Moderate to severe eye discomfort
  • Vision problems, such as sensitivity to light or blurry vision
  • Extreme redness in the eye

Viral conjunctivitis is contagious for eight days and has an incubation period (time between exposure to the virus and onset of symptoms) of eight days. The following viral precautions are advised:

  • Frequent hand washing
  • Avoiding close contact with others who are not infected
  • Not sharing towels or pillowcases
  • Staying home from school or work

Once the infection goes away, the following measures can prevent re-infection:

  • Discard any eye or face makeup or applicators used during infection
  • Throw away contact lenses, solutions, and cases used during infection
  • Clean eyeglasses and cases

It is best to discuss treatment options with your ophthalmologist to find the most effective solution to your conjunctivitis symptoms. If you are concerned about pink eye or have any questions, please feel free to contact us.

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