The basics of pink eye (conjunctivitis)

Pink, itchy eyes? Pink eye – or conjunctivitis – is common and can spread easily. It sometimes needs medical treatment, depending on the cause. Know the symptoms, how to help prevent it, and when to seek treatment.

Pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, is one of the most common eye conditions in children and adults. It is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the thin, clear tissue that lines the inside of the eyelid and the white part of the eyeball. This inflammation makes blood vessels more visible, and gives the eye a pink or reddish color.
What are the symptoms of pink eye?

pinkeye-eyes-cdcIt can be hard to determine the exact cause of every case of conjunctivitis. This is because some signs and symptoms of the condition may be similar depending on the cause. Signs and symptoms of pink eye can vary, but typically include the following:

  • Pink or red color in the white of the eye(s) (often one eye for bacterial and often both eyes for viral or allergic conjunctivitis)
  • Swelling of the conjunctiva (the thin layer that lines the white part of the eye and the inside of the eyelid) and/or eyelids
  • Increased tearing
  • Discharge of pus, especially yellow-green (more common in bacterial conjunctivitis)
  • Itching, irritation, and/or burning
  • Feeling like a foreign body is in the eye(s) or an urge to rub the eye(s)
  • Crusting of eyelids or lashes sometimes occurs, especially in the morning
  • Symptoms of a cold, flu, or other respiratory infection may also be present
  • Sensitivity to bright light sometimes occurs
  • Enlargement and/or tenderness, in some cases, of the lymph node in front of the ear. This enlargement may feel like a small lump when touched. (Lymph nodes act as filters in the body, collecting and destroying viruses and bacteria.)
  • Symptoms of allergy, such as an itchy nose, sneezing, a scratchy throat, or asthma may be present in cases of allergic conjunctivitis
  • Contact lenses that do not stay in place on the eye and/or feel uncomfortable due to bumps that may form under the eyelid
Supermom myth: Moms happier to know they can't do it all

Sometimes there are situations that can help your healthcare provider determine what is causing the conjunctivitis. For example, if a person with allergies develops conjunctivitis when the pollen count increases in the spring, this would be a sign that he or she might have allergic conjunctivitis. And if someone develops conjunctivitis during an outbreak of viral conjunctivitis, this would be a sign that he or she might have viral conjunctivitis.

What causes pink eye?

There are four main causes of pink eye:

  • Viruses
  • Bacteria
  • Allergens (like pet dander or dust mites)
  • Irritants (like smog or swimming pool chlorine) that infect or irritate the eye and eyelid lining
How do I stop pink eye from spreading?

Viral and bacterial pink eye are very contagious and can spread easily and quickly from person to person. You can reduce the risk of getting or spreading pink eye by following some simple self-care steps, like washing your hands and not touching your eyes. See these tips on pinkeye/conjunctivitis prevention. Pink eye that is caused by allergens or irritants is not contagious, but it is possible to develop a secondary infection by other viruses or bacteria.

How is pink eye treated?

The treatment for pink eye depends on the cause. Pink eye is usually mild and will often get better on its own, even without treatment. However, there are times when it is important to see a health care provider and get an antibiotic or other medical treatment. For more details, see How to treat pink eye (conjunctivitis).

What is an intellectual disability?
When should I call a healthcare provider?

Most cases of pink eye are mild and get better without treatment. However, some forms are more severe. Severe cases need to be looked at by a health care provider and may require specific treatment and close follow-up. If you have pink eye, you should see your health care provider if you have…

  • Moderate to severe pain in your eye(s)
  • Blurred vision or increased sensitivity to light
  • Intense redness in the eye(s)
  • A weakened immune system, for example, from HIV or cancer treatment
  • Bacterial pink eye that does not improve after 24 hours of antibiotic use
  • Symptoms that get worse or don’t improve
  • Pre-existing eye conditions that may put you at risk for complications or severe infection
Pink eye in newborns

Pink eye in newborns can be very serious because it may cause long-term eye problems or lead to infection of organs other than the eye.

A newborn baby who has symptoms of pink eye should see a health care provider. Pink eye in newborns can be caused by an infection, irritation, or a blocked tear duct. It can be very serious because it may cause long-term eye problems or lead to infection of organs other than the eye.

Neonatal pink eye can also be caused by sexually transmitted infections, like gonorrhea or chlamydia, and be passed from mother to baby most commonly during birth. If you are pregnant and think you may have a sexually transmitted infection, visit your health care provider for testing and treatment. If you don’t know whether you have a sexually transmitted infection but have recently given birth and your newborn shows signs of pink eye, visit your child’s health care provider right away.

Have asthma? Vitamin D may be what you need to breathe better

Most hospitals are required by state law to put drops or ointment in a newborn’s eyes to prevent pink eye.

More Stories
The evolutionary importance of love: A bird’s-eye view

Pin It on Pinterest