Pink eye (conjunctivitis) is an inflammation or infection of the transparent membrane (conjunctiva) that lines your eyelid and covers the white part of your eyeball. When small blood vessels in the conjunctiva get inflamed, they become more visible. This is what causes the whites of your eyes to appear reddish or pink.
Pink eye is commonly caused by a bacterial or viral infection, an allergic reaction.
Though pink eye can be irritating, it rarely affects your vision. Treatments can help ease the discomfort of pink eye. Because pink eye can be contagious, early diagnosis and treatment can help limit its spread.
The most common pink eye symptoms include:
- A gritty feeling
- A discharge that forms a crust during the night that may prevent your eyes from opening in the morning
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your primary care doctor if you notice any signs or symptoms you think might be pink eye.
Pink eye can be highly contagious for as long as two weeks after signs and symptoms begin. Early diagnosis and treatment can protect people around you from getting pink eye too.
People who wear contact lenses need to stop wearing their contacts as soon as pink eye symptoms begin. If your symptoms don't start to get better within 12 to 24 hours, make an appointment with your doctor to make sure you don't have a more serious eye infection related to contact lens use.
In addition, there are other serious eye conditions that can cause eye redness. Typically, these conditions will also cause pain and blurred vision. If you experience these symptoms, seek immediate care.
Causes of pink eye include:
- A chemical splash in the eye
- A foreign object in the eye
Viral conjunctivitis and bacterial conjunctivitis may affect one or both eyes. Viral conjunctivitis usually produces a watery discharge. Bacterial conjunctivitis often produces a thicker, yellow-green discharge. Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis can be associated with colds or with symptoms of a respiratory infection, such as a sore throat. Both viral and bacterial types are very contagious. They are spread through direct or indirect contact with the eye secretions of someone who's infected. Adults and children alike can develop both of these types of pink eye. However, bacterial conjunctivitis is more common in children than it is in adults.
Allergic conjunctivitis affects both eyes and is a response to an allergy-causing substance such as pollen. In response to allergens, your body produces an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE). This antibody triggers special cells called mast cells in the mucous lining of your eyes and airways to release inflammatory substances, including histamines. Your body's release of histamine can produce a number of allergy signs and symptoms, including red or pink eyes. If you have allergic conjunctivitis, you may experience itching, tearing and inflammation of the eyes — as well as sneezing and watery nasal discharge. Most allergic conjunctivitis can be controlled with allergy eyedrops.
Irritation from a chemical splash or foreign object in your eye is also associated with conjunctivitis. Signs and symptoms, which may include watery eyes and a mucous discharge, usually clear up on their own within about a day.
In both children and adults, pink eye can cause inflammation in the cornea that can affect vision. Prompt evaluation and treatment by your doctor can reduce the risk of complications.
Start by seeing your primary care doctor if you have any eye-related signs or symptoms that worry you. If your signs and symptoms persist or get worse, despite treatment, your doctor may refer you to an eye specialist (ophthalmologist). Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Stop using contact lenses until you see your doctor. Wash your hands frequently to lessen the chance of infecting other people. Don't share towels with other people for the same reason.
To determine whether you have pink eye, your doctor will examine your eyes. If your infection is bacterial, your doctor may prescribe antibiotic eyedrops, and the infection should go away within several days. Antibiotic eye ointment, in place of eyedrops, is sometimes prescribed for treating bacterial pink eye in children. An ointment is often easier to administer to an infant or young child than are eyedrops, though the ointment may blur vision for up to 20 minutes after application. With either form of medication, expect signs and symptoms to start getting better in a few days. Follow your doctor's instructions and use the antibiotics for the complete period prescribed to prevent recurrence of the infection.
There is no treatment for most cases of viral conjunctivitis. Instead, the virus needs time to run its course — up to two or three weeks. Viral conjunctivitis often begins in one eye and then infects the other eye within a few days. Your signs and symptoms should gradually clear on their own.
If the irritation is allergic conjunctivitis, your doctor may prescribe one of many different types of eyedrops for people with allergies. These may include medications that help control allergic reactions, such as antihistamines and mast cell stabilizers, or drugs that help control inflammation, such as decongestants, steroids and anti-inflammatory drops. You may also reduce the severity of your allergic conjunctivitis symptoms by avoiding whatever causes your allergies when possible.
To help you cope with the signs and symptoms of pink eye until it goes away, try to:
- Apply a compress to your eyes. To make a compress, soak a clean, lint-free cloth in water and wring it out before applying it gently to your closed eyelids. Generally, a cool water compress will feel the most soothing, but you can also use a warm compress if that feels better to you. If pink eye affects only one eye, don't touch both eyes with the same cloth.
- Stop wearing contact lenses. If you wear contact lenses, you may need to stop wearing them until your eyes feel better. How long you'll need to go without contact lenses depends on what's causing your conjunctivitis. If your lenses aren't disposable, clean them thoroughly before reusing them.
Practice good hygiene to control the spread of pink eye.
- Don't touch your eyes with your hands.
- Wash your hands often.
- Use a clean towel and washcloth daily.
- Don't share towels or washcloths.
- Change your pillowcases often.
- Throw away your eye cosmetics, such as mascara.
- Don't share eye cosmetics or personal eye care items.