Pink eye (also called conjunctivitis) is a common eye condition that often occurs in school-aged children. The term describes any inflammatory condition that affects the conjunctiva.
Covering the eyeball surface, the conjunctiva is a loose piece of connective tissue. The conjunctiva tissue sticks to the sclera (white eye area) which contains cells that lubricate the eyes. As with most other mucous membranes, pathogens stick to the conjunctiva. This disrupts normal defenses and produces clinical signs and symptoms, such as irritation and redness.
What causes Pink Eye?
Pink eye is an inflammation of the conjunctiva and the interior surface of the eyelid. Common causes of Pink eye include:
- Pathogens, like viruses and bacteria, can penetrate this tissue, causing an eye infection.
- Specific allergens, chemicals, fumes, and smoke can lead to pink eye.
Any factors that contribute to the development of inflammation will cause the blood vessels of the conjunctiva to dilate. It will result in bloodshot, red eyes.
While several factors can cause conjunctivitis, many eye doctors only use “pink eye” when referring to the highly contagious condition known as viral conjunctivitis.
Risk Factors for Pink Eye
Although anyone can contract pink eye, certain groups are more prone to this. Groups susceptible to getting pink eye include:
- School-aged children
- Toddlers or preschoolers who frequently attend daycare centers
- College students
- Daycare workers
Types of Pink eye (Conjunctivitis)
There are three main types of conjunctivitis. They are classified based on their specific cause. These include:
- Viral Conjunctivitis – This type of pink eye is caused by viruses. This conjunctivitis is highly contagious. And typically, it will get better within several days without any medical intervention.
- Bacterial Conjunctivitis – This kind of pink eye results from an invasion by certain bacteria. Severe damage to the eye can result if it goes without proper treatment.
- Allergic Conjunctivitis – This type of pink eye is caused by eye irritants, including substances like pollen, dust, and animal dander. These can result in of the allergic pink eye. Allergic conjunctivitis can be seasonally triggered, or it can flare up throughout the year, especially if you are exposed to a specific allergen (i.e., pet dander or dust). This is not contagious, and it affects both eyes.
Symptoms of Pink Eye
Not surprisingly, the main symptom of “pink eye” is an eye that appears to be pink in color. This results from the dilatation of the conjunctiva blood vessels.
However, other common symptoms depend on the specific type of conjunctivitis. These include:
Viral Conjunctivitis Symptoms
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Light sensitivity
- Enlarged glands in front of the ears
- Swollen eyelids
- Whitish or light yellow eye drainage
Bacterial Conjunctivitis Symptoms
- Yellowish or greenish-yellow, sticky eye discharge
- Eye matter located in the corner of the eye
- Eyelids stick together first thing in the morning
- Eye pain
- Upper eyelid swelling
- Dropping of eyelid
Allergic Conjunctivitis Symptoms
- Burning, itchy, watery eyes
- Usually accompanied by a runny nose and nasal stuffiness
- Sensitivity to light
- Both eyes affected
When to Seek Medical Care?
It would be best if you did not assume that all cases of pink eye are the result of a viral infection. Symptoms and signs can arise from a chalazion or sty (inflamed gland along the eyelid), seasonal allergies, or blepharitis (condition of the eyelid skin). Call your ophthalmologist if you have:
- A high fever
- Facial pain
- Green or yellow eye discharge
- Vision loss
- Pain when looking at bright lights
- Persistent eye redness
- Blurred vision
- Double vision
- See rings of light around objects
Treatment of Pink Eye
Generally, pink eye is treated quite easily. By following several simple measures, you and your family can avoid getting pink eye. Treatment also depends on the specific type. In most instances of viral conjunctivitis, the virus will clear up on its own after several days with no medical treatment.
Treatment options include:
- Comfort Measures – You can try frequent applications of cold and wet compresses to relieve itchy, watery eye(s). But, be very careful if you do this for your child due to the highly contagious nature of this condition. Use a compressed cloth ONCE before thoroughly laundering it.
- Antibiotic Eye Medications – For bacterial conjunctivitis, antibiotic eye drops or ointments are the treatment of choice.
- Allergy Medications – For the treatment of allergies, certain medications may shorten episodes or prevent allergic conjunctivitis. These medications should be taken before allergy season arrives.
Other Eye Conditions or Complications
Sometimes, other eye conditions or health problems cause pink eye symptoms. Occasionally, bacterial conjunctivitis leads to severe eye problems, including corneal ulcers. This can lead to permanent loss of vision.
Other conditions that can be associated with pink eye include:
- Other types of eye infections
- Dry eyes
- Blepharitis, an inflammatory disease of the eyelids
Prevention of Pink Eye
To significantly reduce the risk of getting infections, you can take some preventive measures. These include:
- Never share items like facial tissues, washcloths, or hand towels.
- When coughing or sneezing, always cover your mouth and nose.
- Avoid touching or rubbing your eyes whenever you have a cold.
- Never share your contact lenses, eye drops, or eye makeup with anyone else.
- Wash your hands often, particularly when in school or other public places.
- Make frequent use of hand sanitizer.
- Clean surfaces such as countertops and phones with antiseptic cleansers regularly.
- Ask your doctor what to do about your seasonal allergy symptoms before they develop.
- If you wear contact lenses, practice proper lens care and replacement procedures.
- Before showering or swimming, take out your contact lenses to prevent the chances of bacteria from getting between your eyes and your contacts.
- Wear goggles when swimming to guard against bacteria that might cause pink eye.
If you are diagnosed with conjunctivitis, you should follow your eye doctor’s specific instructions depending upon the cause and severity of the condition. If your child has pink eye, be sure to inform the teacher so proper sanitizing steps can be taken in the daycare center or classroom. Always keep your child at home until they are no longer contagious. Your eye care specialist will indicate when you or your child can be around others without potentially spreading the disease.