Conjunctivitis is a common condition that affects the eye. Each year, about 6 million people in the United States develop the eye condition.
Conjunctivitis is also known as pink eye because of the way it turns the conjunctiva, or white part of the eye, red or pink. More specifically, pink eye causes swelling of the conjunctiva, which is a thin layer of tissue lining the cornea and the inside of the eyelid.
Causes of Conjunctivitis
The most common causes of conjunctivitis include viruses, bacteria, and allergens. Viruses cause viral conjunctivitis, which is highly contagious and capable of causing large outbreaks. Bacterial conjunctivitis, which is more common in kids than in adults, can also spread easily in some settings. Allergic conjunctivitis develops when the body reacts to an allergen, such as pollen and dust mites.
Other causes of pink eye include chemicals, wearing contact lenses, loose eyelashes or other foreign body in the eye, air pollution, fungi, amoeba, and parasites. Conjunctivitis is not contagious.
In many cases, it is difficult or impossible to determine the underlying cause, as the symptoms can be the same no matter what causes pink eye.
Symptoms of Conjunctivitis
Symptoms of pink eye include:
- Pink or red color in the conjunctiva
- Swelling of the conjunctiva and/or eyelids
- Increased production of tears
- Feeling like something is in your eye
- Urge to rub your eyes
- Itching, irritation, and/or burning
- Discharge of mucus or pus from the affected eye
- Crusting over of eyelids or lashes, especially after waking up
- Discomfort while wearing contact lenses
Diagnosis of Conjunctivitis
To diagnose conjunctivitis, a doctor will start by reviewing the patient’s health history and symptoms. Next, the physician will examine the patient’s eyes. The healthcare provider may take a sample of the pus or mucus draining from the eyes to be cultured, or grown, in a laboratory. A culture is necessary if symptoms are severe or if the doctor suspects a foreign body in the eye, a serious bacterial infection, or a sexually transmitted infection.
Conjunctivitis treatment focuses on relieving the symptoms. Doctors typically recommend treating pink eye by:
- Using artificial tears
- Cleaning eyelids with a wet cloth
- Applying warm or cold compresses to the affected eye
Patients should avoid wearing contacts while under treatment for pink eye. Healthcare professionals typically recommend throwing away any previously-worn soft contact lenses, and to disinfect any hard contact lenses before reusing them. Patients should also throw away any eye makeup they used before they developed conjunctivitis.
Antibiotics are not usually necessary, as most cases of pink eye are the result of viruses, which do not respond to antibiotics. Using antibiotics unnecessarily can even cause harm by reducing their effectiveness in the future or by increasing the risk of a reaction to the medicine.
Eye drops can contain medications, such as antihistamines and mast cell stabilizers, which help reduce pink eye associated with allergies. Decongestants, steroids and anti-inflammatory drops can help inflammation from conjunctivitis. Non-prescription medications can also help reduce symptoms.
Viral conjunctivitis frequently infects one eye first and then the other within a few days. Conjunctivitis usually goes away on its own in about 2 to 3 weeks.
Prevention of Conjunctivitis
While pink eye is often highly contagious, it may be preventable. Prevention includes:
- Frequent hand washing, especially after contact with someone with conjunctivitis
- Avoid touching or rubbing the eyes
- Avoid sharing personal items, such as face towels, makeup, eye drops, contact lenses, and bedding
- Not using the same eye products for both the infected and non-infected eye
- Stopping contact lens use until cleared by a doctor
- Cleaning and storing contact lenses as instructed by an eye doctor
Conjunctivitis is a common condition that causes symptoms, but does not cause any serious, long-term health issues. For more information about pink eye, consult with your doctor.