Pinkeye, also known as conjunctivitis, is very common and usually associated with young children. It is often contagious and tends to sweep through preschools and school playgrounds; but even adults can get pinkeye.
"Conjunctivitis or pink eye involves redness and swelling of the mucous membrane that lines the eyelid and eye surface, called the conjunctiva," explained Ophthalmologist Andrew Pederzolli, M.D. "As the eyes become irritated or an infection occurs, the lining becomes red and swollen."
"When people talk about pinkeye, they're usually referring to the infectious kind, which is often caused by the same bacteria and viruses responsible for colds and other infections, including ear infections, sinus infections, and sore throats. The length of time between when someone gets infected and when their symptoms appear depends on what's causing the infection, but usually ranges from a couple of days to a couple of weeks."
"It may be difficult to tell whether this type of eye infection is caused by a virus or bacteria," Dr. Pederzolli continued. "In general, the discharge associated with viral conjunctivitis is watery, whereas it will be thicker and more pus-like when the infection is caused by bacteria, and a person's eyelids may be stuck together when he or she wakes up in the morning."
"Pinkeye may also be noninfectious. The common types of noninfectious conjunctivitis are allergic conjunctivitis, caused by an allergic reaction, or irritant conjunctivitis, caused by anything that irritates the eyes, such as air pollution or chlorine in pools. For those with allergic conjunctivitis, itchiness and tearing are more common."
Common Pinkeye Symptoms
- Eye redness
- Swollen, red eyelids
- More tearing than usual or drainage from the eye
- Feeling as if something is in the eye
- An itching or burning feeling
- Mild sensitivity to light
"Traditionally, at-home remedies have been sufficient for soothing mild conjunctivitis associated with uncomplicated colds, minor infections, or allergies," added Dr. Pederzolli. "Placing cool or warm washcloths over the infected eye may assist in relieving symptoms. Or, it may be helpful to clean the infected eye carefully with warm water and fresh, clean gauze or cotton balls.
"Viral conjunctivitis usually runs its course in one to two weeks. Because it is not caused by bacteria, viral conjunctivitis does not respond to antibiotics. However, artificial tears may be used to help relieve symptoms. For bacterial conjunctivitis, the treatment will most likely call for antibiotic eye drops or ointment. This generally improves the symptoms within a few days."
Is it Contagious?
Conjunctivitis that's caused by bacteria is contagious as soon as the symptoms appear and remains so as long as there is a discharge from the eye or until 24 hours after antibiotics are started. Conjunctivitis that's caused by a virus is generally contagious before the symptoms appear and can remain so as long as the symptoms last. Allergic and irritant conjunctivitis are not contagious.
"People with infectious pinkeye should not go to school, day care, or return to work until they are no longer contagious," Dr. Pederzolli advised.
"This may vary from 24 hours to seven to 10 days, depending on the source of the infection. Because viral and bacterial pinkeye are contagious, they can be spread very easily through contact with the eye drainage, which contains the virus or bacteria that caused the pinkeye. For example, touching an infected eye leaves drainage on your hand. If you touch your other eye or another object when you have drainage on your hand, the virus or bacteria may be spread to others.
"Poor hand-washing is the main cause of the spread of pinkeye. However, sharing an object, such as a washcloth or towel, with a person who has pinkeye can also spread the infection."
Tips to help prevent the spread of pinkeye:
- Wash hands before and after touching the eyes or face.
- Do not use eye makeup until the infection is fully cured to prevent a reinfection. If your eye infection was caused by bacteria or a virus, throw away your old makeup and buy new products. Do not share eye makeup.
- Do not wear contact lenses until the infection is cured. Thoroughly clean your contacts before wearing them again.
- Do not share towels, linens, pillows, or handkerchiefs. Use clean linens, towels, and washcloths daily.
- Wear eye protection when in the wind, heat, or cold to prevent eye irritation, or when working with chemicals.
"In most cases, infectious conjunctivitis causes only minor problems with no risk of damage to the eyes or vision," he concluded.
"However, in rare instances, it can cause permanent damage or even blindness, so be sure to check with your doctor if you think you have pinkeye."
Andrew Pederzolli, M.D., is a board certified pphthalmologist and affiliated with Salem Community Hospital's medical staff. Dr. Pederzolli's and Dr. Bart Brine's ophthalmology offices are located at 1059 East State Street in Salem,(330-332-9991; and 32 East Broadway in Alliance, 330-821-0314.