What Is Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye)?

Caring mother looking at daughter's eye in kitchen

Conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye, is a common infection that causes inflammation of the thin, clear tissue that covers the white parts of the eye and lines the inside of the eyelid. This inflammation makes the whites of the eye red or pink. 

What Causes Pink Eye and How Contagious Is It?

Pink eye has many causes including viruses like the common cold or COVID-19, bacteria, allergens like molds and pollen, substances that irritate the eye like cosmetics or smoke, blocked tear ducts, and sexually transmitted infections.

Pink eye caused by viruses or bacteria is highly contagious, in part because it can be spread even before a person develops symptoms. The virus particles or bacteria make their way from one person to another when an infected person touches their eye, touches someone such as when shaking hands, and then that person touches their eye. 

The pathogen can also be picked up from contaminated objects like doorknobs, countertops, etc.

What Are the Symptoms of Pink Eye and How Is It Diagnosed?

In addition to the telltale redness of the eye and inner eyelid, pink eye also causes:

  • Excessive tear production in the affected eye
  • Yellow discharge that forms a crust on the eyelashes, especially after sleep
  • Green or white discharge
  • Itching or burning sensation in the eye
  • Swollen eyelid
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Gritty sensation in the eye
  • Blurred vision

Pink eye is diagnosed based on an examination of the eyes. Sometimes a vision test is conducted to determine if the patient’s vision has been affected. Typically, no other tests are needed unless bacterial pink eye is suspected. In that case, your doctor may use a cotton swab to collect a sample of the eye secretions for analysis to determine the type of bacteria present.

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How Is Pink Eye Treated?

The treatment for pink eye is different for each cause. Pink eye caused by bacteria is treated with prescription antibiotics, often in the form of eye drops or ointments. If pink eye is caused by a virus, it must run its course, and typically resolves in four to seven days, although it can take up to 14 days. 

For pink eye caused by irritants, the treatment is to rinse the eyes in a gentle stream of warm water for approximately five minutes and avoid additional exposure to the substance. Allergic conjunctivitis is treated with eye drops (prescription or over-the-counter) containing either anti-inflammatory drugs or antihistamines. 

Pink eye from sexually transmitted infections is treated with antibiotics or antiviral medications. 

How Can the Spread of Pink Eye Be Prevented?

For pink eye caused by viruses or bacteria, preventative measures include:

  • Avoiding touching the infected eye(s)
  • Frequent handwashing with soap and water
  • Cleaning around the infected eye(s) twice a day using a fresh cotton ball
  • Avoiding sharing any items that might have the virus or bacteria on them (towels, eyeglasses, eye makeup, etc.)
  • Washing hands thoroughly after applying eye drops or ointment

It may be recommended that young children with pink eye stay home from school or daycare until they’re no longer at risk of spreading the infection. 

Talk with Your Doctor if You Think You Have Pink Eye

Pink eye can be treated and may even resolve on its own in some cases, so it typically isn’t a serious health concern. However, since it affects the eyes, it’s best to talk with your doctor and get an exam if appropriate. Find a physician near you in our online provider directory.  

Next Steps and Useful Resources:

Find a Baptist Health Provider Near You
Get Care 24/7 From Home with Baptist Health Virtual Care
Common School-Spread Illnesses
Is Pink Eye a Symptom of COVID-19?

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