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Pinkeye (Conjunctivitis) Slideshow: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatments

What Is Pinkeye?

Pinkeye -- also called conjunctivitis -- is redness and inflammation of the clear membranes covering the whites of the eyes and the membranes on the inner part of the eyelids. Pinkeye is most often caused by a virus or by a bacterial infection, although allergies, chemical agents, and underlying diseases can also play a role.

Is Pinkeye Contagious?

Viral and bacterial pinkeye are extremely contagious. It's easily spread through poor hand washing or by sharing an object (like a towel) with someone who has it. It can also spread through coughing and sneezing. Kids diagnosed with infectious pinkeye should stay out of school or day care for a short period of time. Allergic pinkeye (caused by seasonal pollens, animal dander, cosmetics, and perfumes) and chemical pinkeye (from chemicals or liquids, including bleach and furniture polish) are not contagious.

Symptom: Eye Redness

Redness of the eye is the typical, telltale symptom of pinkeye. Pinkeye is a common condition that is rarely serious and unlikely to cause long-term eye or vision damage if promptly detected and treated.

Symptom: Swollen, Red Eyelids

The symptoms of infectious pinkeye typically begin in one eye and involve the other eye within a few days. Symptoms of allergic pinkeye usually involve both eyes. Swelling of the eyelids is more common with bacterial and allergic pinkeye.

Symptom: Lots of Tearing

Viral and allergic pinkeye are known for causing more tear production than usual.

Symptom: Itchy or Burning Eyes

You would know it if you felt it -- that overwhelming itchy, burning feeling in the eyes, which is typical of pinkeye.

Symptom: Drainage from the Eyes

A clear, watery drainage is common with viral and allergic pinkeye. When the drainage is more greenish-yellow (and there's a lot of it), this is likely bacterial pinkeye.

Symptom: Crusty Eyelids

If you wake up with your eyes "stuck shut," this may be caused by the discharge that accumulates during sleep from pinkeye.

Symptom: Sensitivity to Light

Pinkeye can cause mild sensitivity to light. A person who has severe symptoms, such as changes in eyesight, severe light sensitivity, or severe pain may have an infection that has spread beyond the conjunctiva and should be examined by a doctor.

Symptom: 'Something in the Eye'

You may notice a bothersome feeling like something is stuck in your eye. Or, a child may describe the feeling as sand in the eye. 

Pinkeye Diagnosis

A doctor can often diagnose pinkeye just by its distinguishing signs and symptoms. However a slit lamp exam may be required. In some cases, a swab of the discharge from the eye is sent to a lab to determine the cause.

When Pinkeye Means Something More

Persistent pinkeye could be from a severe allergy or infection that needs treatment. Also, the eyelid could be irritated called blepharitis, or the cornea called dry eye.  Rarely, it is a sign of an illness in the body like rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus), or inflammatory bowel diseases, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease.  Pinkeye is also seen in Kawasaki disease - a rare disease associated with fever in infants and young children.

Treating Pinkeye

Bacterial pinkeye is treated with antibiotic eyedrops, ointment, or pills to clear the infection. Most viral pinkeye cases have no specific treatment -- you just have to let the virus run its course, which is usually four to seven days. Allergic pinkeye symptoms should improve once the allergen source is removed and the allergy itself is treated. Chemical pinkeye requires prompt washing of the affected eye(s) for five minutes and an immediate call to the doctor.


Easing Symptoms

To reduce pain and to remove the discharge of bacterial or viral pinkeye, use a cold or warm compress on the eyes. Make sure to use a different washcloth for each eye to prevent spreading any infection. And use clean washcloths each time. Clean the eye from drainage by wiping from the inside to the outside of the eye area. 

How Long Am I Contagious?

With bacterial pinkeye, you can usually return to work or school 24 hours after antibiotics have been started, as long as symptoms have improved. With viral pinkeye, you are contagious as long as the symptoms last. Check with your doctor to be certain.

Preventing Its Spread

If you or your child has infectious pinkeye, avoid touching the eye area, and wash your hands frequently, particularly after applying medications to the area. Never share towels or handkerchiefs, and throw away tissues after each use. Change linens and towels daily. Disinfect all surfaces, including countertops, sinks, and doorknobs. Throw away any makeup used while infected.

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Conjunctivitis (Pinkeye)

What Can I Do to Relieve Symptoms of Pinkeye?

To relieve the symptoms of pinkeye:

  • Protect your eyes from dirt and other irritating substances.
  • Avoid the use of makeup.
  • Remove contact lenses if you wear them.
  • Non-prescription "artificial tears," a type of eye drops, may help relieve itching and burning from the irritating substances causing your pinkeye. However, other types of eye drops may irritate the eyes and should not be used, including those promoted to treat eye redness. Note: Do not use the same bottle of drops in an uninfected eye.


How Can I Prevent Spreading Pinkeye?

If you or your child has pinkeye:

  • Don't touch or rub the infected eye(s).
  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water.
  • Wash any discharge from your eyes several times a day using a fresh cotton ball or paper towel. Afterwards, discard the cotton ball or paper towel and wash your hands with soap and warm water.
  • Wash your bed linens, pillowcases, and towels in hot water and detergent.
  • Avoid wearing eye makeup.
  • Don't share eye makeup with anyone.
  • Never wear another person's contact lenses.
  • Wear eyeglasses instead of contact lenses. Throw away disposable lenses or be sure to clean extended-wear lenses and all eyewear cases.
  • Avoid sharing common articles such as unwashed towels and glasses.
  • Wash your hands after applying the eye drops or ointment to your eye or your child's eye.
  • Do not use eye drops that were used for an infected eye in a non-infected eye.
  • If your child has bacterial or viral pinkeye, keep your child home from school or day care until he or she is no longer contagious. It's usually safe to return to school when symptoms have been resolved; however, it's important to continue practicing good hygiene just to be sure.


What Are the Complications of Pinkeye?

Usually, pinkeye is a self-limited disease, either clearing up on its own or after a course of antibiotics. However, certain forms of conjunctivitis can become serious and sight-threatening, because they can cause cornea scarring. They include conjunctivitis caused by gonorrhea, chlamydia, or certain strains of the adeno virus.

Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on April 17, 2014

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