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Conjunctivitis, commonly known as "pink eye," is an infection or swelling in the outer membrane of your eyeball. Blood vessels in your conjunctiva, a thin membrane that lines part of your eye, become inflamed. This gives your eye the red or pink color that’s commonly associated with conjunctivitis.
Since bacterial or viral conjunctivitis is very contagious, it’s important to pay attention to your symptoms. The condition can be passed along to others up to two weeks after it develops. Talk with your doctor about treatment if you experience:
The most common causes of pink eye are:
Bacterial conjunctivitis is most often caused by the same type of bacteria that cause strep throat and staph infections. Conjunctivitis from a virus, on the other hand, is usually the result of one of the viruses that cause the common cold. Whatever the cause, viral and bacterial pink eye is considered highly contagious. It can spread from one person to another quite easily by hand contact.
Allergens, such as pollen, can cause pink eye in one or both of your eyes. They stimulate your body to create more histamines, which cause inflammation as a part of your body’s response to what it thinks is an infection. In turn, this causes allergic conjunctivitis. Allergic conjunctivitis is usually itchy.
You also need to be careful if a foreign substance or chemical splashes into your eyes. Chemicals such as chlorine, found in backyard swimming pools, can cause conjunctivitis. Rinsing your eyes with water is a simple and effective way to keep a chemical irritant from causing pink eye.
It’s not hard for your doctor to diagnose pink eye. Your doctor will be able to tell if you have pink eye simply by asking you a few questions and looking at your eyes. If necessary, they might take a tear or fluid sample from your conjunctiva and send it to a lab for further analysis.
Treatment of conjunctivitis depends on what’s causing it. If your pink eye is the result of a chemical irritant, there’s a good chance it will go away on its own in a few days. If it’s the result of a bacterium, virus, or allergen, there are a few treatment options.
For a bacterial infection, antibiotics are the most common method of treatment. Adults usually prefer eye drops. For children, however, ointment might be a better choice because it’s easier to apply. With the use of antibiotic medication, your symptoms will probably start to disappear in just a few days.
Unfortunately, if you have viral conjunctivitis, there’s no treatment available. Just like the common cold, there are no cures for a virus. Your symptoms will probably go away on their own in seven to 10 days, after the virus has run its course. In the meantime, using a warm compress, or cloth moistened with warm water, can help soothe your symptoms.
To treat conjunctivitis caused by an allergen, your doctor will probably prescribe an antihistamine to stop the inflammation. Loratadine (e.g., Claritin) and diphenhydramine (e.g., Benadryl) are antihistamines that are available in over-the-counter medications. They may help clear your allergic symptoms, including allergic conjunctivitis. Other treatments include antihistamine eyedrops or anti-inflammatory eyedrops.
In addition to using a warm compress, you can also purchase eye drops at your local drugstore that mimic your own tears. They will help relieve your conjunctivitis symptoms. It might also be a good idea to stop wearing contact lenses until your case of pink eye completely clears up.
Practicing good hygiene is one of the best ways to avoid and stop the spread of conjunctivitis. Try to avoid touching your eyes with your hands, and wash your hands thoroughly and often. Only use clean tissues and towels to wipe your face and eyes. Make sure that you don’t share your cosmetics, especially eyeliner or mascara, with other people. It’s also a good idea to wash and change your pillowcases frequently.
If your doctor thinks that your contact lenses are contributing to your pink eye, they may recommend switching to another type of contact lens or disinfection solution. They may suggest cleaning or replacing your contact lenses more frequently, or that you stop wearing contact lenses indefinitely (or at least until your eye heals). Avoiding poorly fitted contact lenses and decorative contact lenses may also decrease your risk of pink eye.
If you already have pink eye, you can help keep your friends and family safe by washing your hands regularly and not sharing towels or washcloths with them. You should change your towel and washcloth daily, replace your eye cosmetics after your infection clears, and follow your doctor’s advice on contact lens care.
If your child has pink eye, it’s a good idea to keep them out of school for at least 24 hours after they start treatment to keep them from spreading pink eye to others.
Written by: Erica Roth
Medically reviewed on: Mar 18, 2016: University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine
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