"Pink eye" is a very common patient complaint and usually refers to the experience of eye redness, swollen red eyelids, itching or burning, or drainage from the eye. The patient is most often diagnosed with conjunctivitis. Acute conjunctivitis simply means inflammation (redness and swelling) of the conjunctiva (lining of the inside of the eyelids and the sclera or white part of the eye). It is a self-limiting condition and easily treated.
Most cases of conjunctivitis are caused by a virus, bacteria or by allergies. Viral conjunctivitis is usually associated with cold-like symptoms such as runny nose and congestion. Bacterial conjunctivitis is caused by bacteria contaminating the eye. Allergic conjunctivitis is caused by a substance triggering a reaction.
Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are contagious and easily spread. Bacterial conjunctivitis is treated with a prescribed antibiotic eye drops. However, most pink eye is caused by viruses that do not usually have any medical treatment. Therefore, prevention of spread is important.
Some ways to prevent spread of infectious pink eye include good hand washing, not sharing personal objects such as towel or wash cloth, throwing away tissues after each use, and disinfecting surfaces like countertops, sinks, and doorknobs.
The person can usually return to day care, school or work when symptoms begin to improve, typically three to five days. If the person is using antibiotic eye drops and symptoms have improved, he or she can return to day care, school, or work 24 hours after starting the antibiotic drops.
Pink eye that is caused by herpes virus (rare condition) can be treated with an antiviral medicine. On the other hand, pink eye from allergies is not contagious. It occurs due to a substance causing a reaction in the conjunctiva making the eye red, swollen and itchy. This type of pink eye is usually seen during spring and fall seasons. It is usually treated by antihistamine eye drops that can be rescription or non-prescription. At home, cool compresses can be applied for some relief and baby wash/shampoo can be used for washing out crusty discharge outside the eye. Contact lenses should not be worn until pink eye has resolved. Eye makeup and facial creams should be avoided around the eye area until symptoms are resolved. It is also recommended to throw out old eye make up and mascara that can possibly have been contaminated. Get a new set.
It is important to note that this information does not substitute for seeking the advice of a health care practitioner. While conjunctivitis is frequently self-limiting and easily treated, it can also sometimes be severe and sight-threatening.