Pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, is a common eye condition that affects more than 3 million children and adults in the U.S. each year. Pink eye can be caused by a viral or bacteria infection, as well as from allergies or certain irritants. Some forms of pink eye are highly contagious and can spread easily, especially in settings like schools. The good news: Pink eye is rarely serious and is usually easy to treat.
Conjunctivitis is an irritation or infection of the thin, clear mucus membrane (called the conjunctiva) that lines the inner surface of the eyelid and covers the white part of the eye. Normally, this membrane helps keep the eye moist. Pink eye occurs when the conjunctiva becomes swollen and inflamed.
Blood vessels in the swollen conjunctiva become dilated, making the affected eye or eyes appear pink or red. Eyelids may crust over during sleep due to discharge from one or both eyes. People with pink eye may have itchy eyes and watery or thick discharge. The condition may cause pain or burning.
The most common causes of pink eye are viruses, bacteria, and allergens. Infectious pink eye is caused by a virus or bacterium. Allergic conjunctivitis is caused by a reaction to allergens, such as pollen or mold. Other irritants, such as smoke, chemicals, contact lenses, or a foreign body in the eye, can also cause pink eye.
Signs and symptoms of pink eye
Pink eye gets its name from its bloodshot hue. The inflamed conjunctiva (the clear film covering the inner eyelid and the white part of the eye) makes blood vessels appear larger than normal. The eye appears pink or red, and the inner eyelid can get puffy and pink, too.
Pink eye can affect one or both eyes. It can easily spread from one eye to the other if the condition is due to a viral or bacterial infection.
Frequent symptoms of pink eye include redness, itching, excess tearing, eye irritation, stinging, and burning.
Eye discharge may vary depending on the type of pink eye. People with pink eye may find that their eyelashes get gluey and stick together. After a night of sleep, their eyelids may crust over and may even be dried shut.
Pink eye often accompanies a cold or some other upper respiratory infection, in which case it suggests that a virus may be responsible for the eye symptoms.
Allergic pink eye can be seasonal. It may occur along with other allergy symptoms, like sneezing and an itchy nose, and often affects people in families with a history of hay fever (also known as allergic rhinitis), asthma, or eczema.
Symptoms of pink eye:
- Pink or red eyes
- Swelling of the conjunctiva
- Eyelid swelling
- Gritty feeling or foreign body sensation (especially when allergy is the cause)
- Excessive tearing
- Watery, stringy, or gooey discharge (depending on the cause of pink eye)
- Sticky eyelashes and eyelid crusting at night
- Swollen lymph node at the front of the ear
- Sensitivity to light
- Blurred vision
What causes pink eye?
Pink eye occurs when something irritates and inflames the conjunctiva (the transparent layer lining the inner eyelids and covering the whites of the eyes). So how do you get pink eye? The most common causes are infections, such viruses and bacteria; allergens; and other irritants.
Viruses are the leading cause of infectious pink eye and may be diagnosed based on medical history and symptoms. Pink eye that appears with a cold or upper respiratory infection increases the likelihood that a person’s pink eye symptoms are due to a virus.
Bacterial pink eye is more common in children due to close contact with others in school and daycare.
Newborns are at risk of contracting pink eye from mothers with sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia and gonorrhea.
Some cases of pink eye are due to other environmental irritants. Chemicals, such as chlorine from swimming pools; air pollution due to vapors, fumes, or smoke; and other irritants, such as cosmetics or contact lenses, can trigger symptoms of pink eye.
Is pink eye contagious?
Some cases of pink eye are contagious and others are not.
Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are highly contagious. Direct or indirect contact with an infected person’s eye secretions can cause pink eye. People can pick up pink eye by touching the hands of someone who has it, or by touching infected surfaces and then touching their eyes. Viral conjunctivitis can be spread by sneezing or coughing in close proximity to another person. Bacterial pink eye can be transmitted through used washcloths, towels, and pillowcases.
There’s no risk of transmission if the cause of conjunctivitis is an allergen or irritant. Allergic pink eye occurs when the body unleashes a response to pollen, dust mites, animal dander, or another allergen. Irritants, such as cosmetics or chlorine in pool water, can cause pink eye, but in this case the condition cannot be passed along to someone else.
Pink eye pictures
Pink eye is aptly named for the pink or reddish tinge of a person’s eye or eyes when they have this condition. The conjunctiva—the thin, clear layer lining the inner eyelid and white part of the eye—swells up, making blood vessels appear larger than normal. Eyelids become pink and puffy.
Redness, swelling, and eye discharge are common signs of pink eye. Symptoms may vary depending on the cause of someone’s pink eye.
When allergens are the culprit, pink eye is very itchy and produces watery discharge. The condition may appear during seasons when mold and pollen are at their peak. However, some forms of allergic conjunctivitis occur year round.
In newborns, pink eye causes red, puffy eyelids. Eye drops given to newborns at birth to prevent bacterial infections can irritate and inflame the conjunctivae, causing mild redness and eyelid swelling. This chemical-causing form of pink eye usually goes away after two to three days.
It is not always possible to determine the cause simply by looking into someone’s eyes, although sometimes the type of discharge can help doctors pinpoint the cause. Sticky eyelashes and gooey discharge are often signs of bacterial conjunctivitis, while bloodshot, watery eyes may signal viral pink eye.
Anything that irritates the eye, including contact lenses, can also lead to pink eye.
How is pink eye diagnosed?
Doctors diagnose pink eye based on a patient’s medical history, eye exam, and other physical signs and symptoms. Redness and swelling are common, but other symptoms of pink eye may depend on the underlying cause.
Often, the consistency and color of eye discharge provides important diagnostic clues. Viral pink eye typically produces watery discharge. Secretions of thick mucus or pus are common with bacterial pink eye. (The discharge may be white, yellow, or green.)
Medical history and recent health status can also help pin down a diagnosis. Doctors may suspect a viral eye infection if pink eye accompanies a cold, sore throat, or other upper respiratory infection. Allergic pink eye typically occurs seasonally when pollen counts are high. It also tends to run in families with hay fever (also known as allergic rhinitis), asthma, or eczema.
Diagnostic tests are usually not necessary for viral or allergic pink eye. However, if bacterial conjunctivitis is suspected, a doctor may collect a sample of eye secretions for laboratory testing to determine the type of bacteria and the best treatment. Testing may also be ordered if the patient has severe inflammation or recurrent eye infections, or if he or she does not respond to treatment.
When to see a doctor for pink eye
Pink eye often resolves on its own with self-care, especially if a virus, allergies, or other irritants are the cause. At times, however, it is important to see a doctor.
Most pink eye cases can be treated by a primary care physician. You may be referred to an ophthalmologist or allergist for evaluation based on symptoms, severity, and response to treatment.
Seek medical attention for intense eye redness, eye pain, a discharge of yellow or green pus, symptoms that do not improve with treatment, recurrent pink eye, or sensitivity to light or blurred vision that persists after clearing eye secretions.
Newborns with pink eye require immediate medical care. Babies exposed to bacteria during vaginal birth as a result of mothers’ untreated sexually transmitted disease or other bacteria (not sexually transmitted) require antibiotics to clear the infection. Without treatment, conjunctivitis caused by gonorrhea can lead to vision complications.
Anyone with a weakened immune system due to HIV, cancer treatment, or other medical conditions or treatments should seek treatment for pink eye.
Pink eye treatment
Pink eye remedies vary depending on the cause. Many cases get better in a matter of days without medication. Antibiotics are used to treat symptoms of pink eye caused by bacterial infection.
Here’s how long pink eye lasts and how to get rid of it:
- Viral pink eye usually clears up on its own in a week or two without treatment. It can take longer if complications occur. Antiviral medicines may be prescribed for more serious cases (such pink eye caused by the herpes simplex virus).
- Mild cases of bacterial conjunctivitis often improve in a matter of days without treatment but can last two to three weeks. Antibiotic eyedrops or ointment can speed recovery, reduce complications, and lower the risk of transmission. Antibiotic treatment is generally recommended for serious symptoms, for people with weak immune systems, and for people whose symptoms do not improve.
- Allergic pink eye usually clears up after exposure to the allergen is reduced or eliminated or when treatment is given. Allergy medicines and certain eye drops may provide symptom relief.
- Pink eye caused by irritants typically improves after the irritant is removed. People who get pink eye from wearing contact lenses may need to switch lenses or disinfecting solutions or take a break from wearing contacts.
Pink eye medications
- Antibiotic eye drops or ointment for bacterial conjunctivitis
- Antiviral medicines to speed recovery from viral conjunctivitis that doesn’t clear up on its own
- Antihistamine eye drops to alleviate symptoms of viral and allergic conjunctivitis
- Oral antihistamines to treat allergy symptoms
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory eye drops to block itching and inflammation
Home remedies for pink eye
Apply a warm, moist compress to the eye several times a day to relieve swelling and irritation due to viral or bacterial infection.
- Cool compresses can ease itching due to allergic pink eye.
- Apply artificial tears to lubricate dry, irritated eyes.
Pink eye in children
Bacteria and viruses that cause pink eye are easily transmitted from hand to eye, which is why toddlers and school-aged children are especially at risk. Pink eye is a common reason for absences from school and day care.
See a doctor to determine the cause of your child’s symptoms and appropriate treatment. Compresses may be used to ease swelling and irritation, and allergy medicines may help kids with allergic pink eye. Antibiotic drops are only prescribed for bacterial forms of pink eye.
Newborns are at risk of developing pink eye, too, called neonatal conjunctivitis (sometimes also known as ophthalmia neonatorum). Babies’ eyes may be infected during vaginal delivery, sometimes if the mother has an untreated sexually transmitted disease (such as chlamydia or gonorrhea) as well as from other non-sexually transmitted bacteria and viruses.
Depending on the type of conjunctivitis a newborn develops, he or she may need oral or intravenous antibiotics, eye drops, or ointments to ward of potentially serious complications.
Sometimes babies develop pink eye after receiving routine eye drops given after birth to prevent eye infection. The irritation usually clears up within a few days.
Newborns can also develop red, irritated eyes due to a clogged tear duct. Parents can usually treat it at home by using a clean hand to gently massage the area between the baby’s eye and nose.
Pink eye prevention
Good hygiene can go a long way toward preventing the transmission of pink eye. To protect yourself from reinfection (and others from acquiring pink eye), follow these tips from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Wash hands frequently with soap and water.
- If you have pink eye in one eye, try not to touch or rub your eyes, since you might infect the other eye.
- Use a clean cloth or fresh cotton ball to clear mucus and pus from your eye. Throw away used cotton balls immediately after using, and launder washcloths in hot water and detergent.
- Wash your hands after applying eyedrops or ointment for pink eye.
- Wash your hands after close contact with an infected person.
- Do not share personal items that may have touched your eyes, such as towels, sheets, pillowcases, and cosmetics. Wash an infected person’s bath and bed items in hot water and detergent.
Avoid reinfection by tossing or cleaning items such as eyeglass cases, eye and face makeup, and contact lenses.