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Illustration of pink eye

Pink Eye

Commonly referred to as pink eye, conjunctivitis causes the white of the eye to turn pink and become itchy and uncomfortable.

There are several types of conjunctivitis, all of which have different causes and treatments.

My eye is irritated. Do I have pink eye?

Eye Pain and Redness

Are Common Symptoms of Conjunctivitis

Eye pain icon Discomfort

One common sign of conjunctivitis is itchy, burning, or watery eyes. You may also experience a gritty sensation, as if there is something stuck in your eye. Generally, patients with this condition are also extra sensitive to light.

Watering eye icon Discharge

Often, inflammation is also associated with yellow, green, or white discharge. The type of discharge is typically related to the cause of the conjunctivitis.

Red eye icon Discoloration

The most well-known symptom of conjunctivitis is red discoloration of the white part of the eye. For this reason, conjunctivitis is often referred to as pink eye.

Do I need to worry about pink eye?

Close Quarters and Contact Lenses

Increase the Risk for Conjunctivitis

Some forms of conjunctivitis are highly contagious and spread quickly among individuals who are in close contact with each other. For this reason, pink eye is a common concern for school-age children.

However, individuals who wear contact lenses or have seasonal allergies are also likely to develop conjunctivitis. Since the condition is caused by irritation of the eye's outermost layer of tissue, known as the conjunctiva, any foreign bodies, such as hard contact lenses, cigarette smoke, or pollen can lead to conjunctivitis.

So if it's not always infection, what causes conjunctivitis?

Allergies, Bacteria, and Viruses

Can All Cause Conjunctivitis

Car exhaust icon Allergic Conjunctivitis

Caused by eye irritants, allergic conjunctivitis can develop due to pollen, dust, or animal dander. It can also stem from exposure to substances, such as cigarette smoke, car fumes, or pool chlorine. This type is not contagious.

Bacteria icon Bacterial Conjunctivitis

The bacterial form of conjunctivitis is most often caused by bacteria from your own hands or respiratory system. Physical contact with others, poor hygiene, and contaminated eye makeup can all cause bacterial conjunctivitis.

Sneeze icon Viral Conjunctivitis

Most commonly caused by the same virus as the common cold, viral conjunctivitis is very contagious. You can be exposed to this form of conjunctivitis when other infected individuals cough or sneeze near you.

How can I prevent conjunctivitis?

"Conjunctivitis is contagious and easily spread because of cross-contamination between people living in close proximity. Even rubbing your eyes, then touching a doorknob, can transmit the infection to others."

Alex Ionides, BSc, MBBS, FRCOphth, MD

Developing a Consistent Hygiene Routine

Can Prevent Pink Eye

Hand washing icon Practice Good Hygiene

One of the best ways to avoid developing conjunctivitis is hygiene. Wash your hands frequently, especially after contact with someone who is ill, avoid sharing eye makeup, and try not to touch your eyes.

Contact lens icon Keep Contacts Clean

Make sure you are throwing away disposable contact lenses regularly and cleaning extended wear lenses properly. Ill-fitting or dirty contact lenses can cause conjunctivitis.

Broom and dust icon Limit Irritants

Dirt, dust, pollen, and other irritants can all cause inflammation in your eye. By minimizing your contact with irritating substances, you can protect your eyes against allergic conjunctivitis.

How do I find out if I have conjunctivitis?

Not All Irritated Eyes Have Conjunctivitis

See a Doctor If You Suspect Something

During your appointment, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and your medical history and then perform an eye exam. In some cases, they will take a sample of any liquid draining from your eye to analyze in the lab.

It can be difficult to determine the exact cause of conjunctivitis, since the symptoms are so similar. However, there are some differences which your doctor can use to determine the optimal treatment option for you.

Viral Conjunctivitis

Bacterial Conjunctivitis

  • Typically occurs at the same time as an ear infection or shortly after birth
  • Eye discharge is thick, rather than watery

Allergic Conjunctivitis

  • Tends to occur seasonally when pollen counts are high
  • Accompanied by intense itchiness in the eyes

Illustration of healthy eye vs. various types of conjunctivitis

Slight variations in symptoms can help your eye doctor identify the type of conjunctivitis you are suffering from.

If your doctor diagnoses you with conjunctivitis, you may want to ask:

  • Is it contagious?
  • If it is, how do I avoid spreading it?
  • Do I need to stay home from school or work?

Okay, I have conjunctivitis. What are my options?

The Best Treatment for You

Depends on Your Type of Conjunctivitis

Compress icon Allergic Conjunctivitis

The first step is to eliminate contact with the irritant, if possible. Cold compresses and eye drops can help relieve the discomfort. In severe cases, anti-inflammatory medication, antihistamines, or topical steroids may be used.

Eyedrops icon Bacterial Conjunctivitis

Antibiotic eye drops or ointments are typically effective for bacterial conjunctivitis. You may see an improvement after only three or four days, but it is important to take the full course of antibiotics.

Clock and time icon Viral Conjunctivitis

Like a common cold, viral conjunctivitis must simply run its course. You can relieve symptoms with cold compresses and eye drops. In some severe cases, your doctor may prescribe topical steroids to reduce discomfort.

Does pink eye last a long time?

Schedule an Appointment

with Your Doctor

In mild forms, pink eye typically clears up within two to three weeks, often without any treatment. While severe forms of conjunctivitis can become serious, your doctor can help you find the right treatment plan to protect your sight against issues. If you have noticed signs of pink eye in yourself or your child, contact a doctor right away to schedule an appointment.

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Contact a Doctor Near You.