Pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, a transparent membrane that forms a lining in the eyelid and covers the white part of the eyeball. Inflammation causes the affected eye to appear reddish or pink.
Viral conjunctivitis is the most common cause of conjunctivitis, an inflammation in the membrane that covers the white part of an eyeball, and usually doesn’t require treatment. The second most common is bacterial conjunctivitis, with uncomplicated cases resolving in one to two weeks.
The prevalence of pink eye varies by sex, age and time of the year. The highest rates are in children below the age of 7, and the highest incidences coming in children younger than 4. The secondary peak of the condition occurs at age 22 in women and at 28 in men.
Overall, the condition is diagnosed in many emergency departments and accounts for almost 1 percent of all eye-related complaints. Its prevalence is higher in women than in men.
What Is Pink Eye?
Pink eye derives its name because of the effects of inflammation on the eye. The irritation causes small blood vessels in the membrane to become more visible, causing the affected eye to appear reddish or pink.
Conjunctivitis rarely develops into a severe condition and is unlikely to lead to problems with vision, especially if treated quickly. Taking care to prevent its spread and doing everything your doctor recommends will help conjunctivitis clear up without long-term problems.
Symptoms of Conjunctivitis
Symptoms of pink eye depend on the cause of the inflammation. However, early signs may include redness, itchiness and blurred vision.
Inflammation of the conjunctiva causes the blood vessels to become more visible, leading to redness in the white of the eye or inner eyelid. If it doesn’t improve in two weeks, it’s essential to consult your eye doctor for treatment.
One or both eyes may become itchy, with sensations like something is stuck in the eye. The itchiness is accompanied by a thick yellow discharge that forms over the eyelashes, especially as you sleep.
In the worse cases of pink eye, you may experience blurred vision. You may also experience severe pain when you look into bright light.
Other symptoms include:
- Burning eyes
- More tears than usual
- Green and sometimes white discharge from the affected eye
- Swollen conjunctiva
Causes of Conjunctivitis
There are several causes of pink eye, with the primary reasons being viruses and bacteria. Others include:
- Contact lenses
- Indoor and outdoor pollution caused by fumes, smoke, dust, and chemical vapors
- Foreign bodies in the eye
- A chemical splash in the eye
- A blocked tear duct, especially in newborns
Sometimes it is difficult to identify the exact cause of conjunctivitis because the symptoms are the same despite the cause.
Types of Pink Eye
Pink eye falls into various categories depending on the causes:
Adenovirus is responsible for most cases of pink eye. However, it can also be because of the varicella-zoster virus, herpes simplex virus, and other viruses, including the one responsible for the coronavirus disease.
Bacterial conjunctivitis is common between December and April. The bacteria behind it include:
- Moraxella catarrhalis
- Haemophilus influenzae
- Chlamydia trachomatis
- Streptococcus pneumoniae
- Staphylococcus aureus
- Neisseria gonorrhea
This type of infection spreads easily, especially in some settings and with specific types of bacteria. It’s more common in kids than adults.
Allergic conjunctivitis happens when the body reacts to allergens. These include dust mites, pollen, molds, grasses and weeds, dander, cosmetics, and medicine. This type of pink eye:
- Occurs seasonally when allergens are high
- Is more frequent among people with various allergic conditions
- Is not contagious
- Can occur all year round because of indoor allergens.
Treatment for Pink Eye
The primary focus when treating pink eye is on relieving the symptoms. Your doctor may recommend using artificial tears or antihistamines, anti-inflammatory drops, or mast cell stabilizers to reduce inflammation. Eye drops that contain steroids should not be used routinely.
You’ll need to stop wearing your contact lenses for some time until treatment is complete. Make sure you disinfect hard lenses overnight before reusing them. Consult with your doctor if you should discard and replace the contact lens and accessories before and during the infection.
For viral conjunctivitis, you won’t need antibiotic eye drops. Instead, it would help to let the virus run its course for about two to three weeks. If your doctor determines you have viral conjunctivitis caused by the herpes simplex virus, they may prescribe antiviral medications.
Home Remedies to Relieve Pink Eye Symptoms
Using warm compresses several times a day can help relieve the symptoms. Clean the edges of the infected eye with warm water and cotton balls. Use a separate cotton ball for each eye. This will also help remove the crusts of dried discharge that cause the eyelids to stick together upon waking up.
Is Pink Eye Contagious and For How Long?
Pink eye is contagious when a virus or bacteria is responsible, but allergic conjunctivitis is not contagious:
- Pink eye caused by bacteria spreads to others as soon as the symptoms appear, especially if there’s discharge from the eye.
- Pink eye caused by a virus is highly contagious before the symptoms appear, and it remains infectious when any symptoms are present.
Conjunctivitis spreads by touching an infected person or something they have touched. Children can also get infected by swimming in contaminated water or sharing dirty towels.
How Can You Prevent Pink Eye?
Infectious conjunctivitis spreads rapidly. That makes it crucial to teach your children to wash their hands often with warm water and soap. Counsel them not to share washcloths, towels, eye drops, tissues, pillowcases and other personal effects.
Ensure you also wash your hands thoroughly after touching an infected child’s eyes. Discard used cotton balls and gauze, and wash used towels and other linens in hot water. Do this separately from other laundry items.
Screening and treating pregnant women for STDs can go a long way in preventing conjunctivitis in newborns. Prenatal screening helps in bacteria control in the birth canal to reduce the risk of infecting the baby during delivery.
What gets rid of pink eye fast?
Warm compresses can help relieve pink eye symptoms quickly. Soak a towel in warm water and wring out the water. Place the towel on the infected eye to stimulate more tear production to relieve the redness.
Will pink eye go away on its own?
Pink eye sometimes clears up on its own within one or two weeks, depending on the cause.
Can I get pink eye again?
If you have viral or bacterial conjunctivitis, it’s essential to take some steps to prevent reinfection. Throw away the contact lens and makeup you used during the infection. Ensure you also clean and disinfect your eyeglasses and cases thoroughly.
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Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye). (January 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Epidemiology of Pink Eye: Endemic Keratoconjunctivitis? (May 2003). Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science.
Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis). (June 2020). Mayo Clinic.
Pinkeye (Conjunctivitis). (November 2020). KidsHealth.
Pink Eye. (August 2019). National Eye Institute.
Last Updated February 26, 2022
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