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Pinkeye (Conjunctivitis) - Topic Overview

What is pinkeye?

Pinkeye is redness and swelling of the lining of the eyelid and eye surface. The lining is called the conjunctiva (say "kawn-junk-TY-vuh"), and pinkeye is also called conjunctivitis (say "kun-JUNK-tih-VY-tus"). The lining of the eye is normally clear and colorless.

Pinkeye is common. It usually spreads easily, especially among children in day care centers and schools.

Because pinkeye is often spread from eye to hand to eye, good hand-washing is important. Sharing a washcloth, towel, or other item with a person who has pinkeye can spread the infection.

See pictures of a normal eye camera.gif and one with conjunctivitis camera.gif.

What causes pinkeye?

Pinkeye is most often caused by a virus. It usually occurs at the same time as or right after you have had a cold. Less commonly, pinkeye can be caused by infection with bacteria.

Dry air, allergies, smoke, and chemicals can also cause pinkeye.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of pinkeye include:

  • Redness.
  • Itchy or burning eyes.
  • More tears than usual. The eye may drain a clear or slightly thick, whitish liquid.
  • Gray or yellow drainage from the eye. Waking up with the eyelashes of one or both eyes stuck together from this dried drainage is a common symptom of pinkeye.
  • Mild sensitivity to light.

You may have symptoms in one eye, both eyes, or the symptoms may spread from one eye to the other eye. When pinkeye is caused by a virus, symptoms usually start in one eye and may then spread to the other eye.

If you think you have pinkeye, call your doctor to find out the best way to treat it. Certain health risks may increase the seriousness of your symptoms.

If you have other symptoms like eye pain or a change in your vision, if you wear contact lenses, or if you have other medical problems, you may have a more serious eye problem. In these cases it is especially important to see a doctor. Young children with pinkeye may also have an ear infection, so they may need to see a doctor.

How is pinkeye diagnosed?

A doctor can usually diagnose pinkeye with an eye exam and by asking questions about your symptoms. Sometimes the doctor will use a cotton swab to take some fluid from around your eye so it can be tested for bacteria or other infection.

How is it treated?

If your doctor thinks the pinkeye is caused by bacteria, he or she may prescribe antibiotic eyedrops or eye ointment to kill the bacteria. See a picture of how to apply eye drops camera.gif or eye ointment camera.gif. With antibiotic treatment, symptoms usually go away in 2 to 3 days. But antibiotics only work for bacterial pinkeye, not for the more common viral pinkeye. Viral pinkeye often clears on its own in 7 to 10 days. If your symptoms last longer, call your doctor.

actionset.gif Eye Problems: Using Eyedrops and Eye Ointments.
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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: November 02, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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