Pinkeye, medically known as conjunctivitis, is an inflammation or infection of the conjunctiva, the transparent thin tissue covering the surface of the eyeball and inner eyelids. This condition causes the affected eye or eyes to appear pink or even red because the tiny blood vessels on the surface of the eye become swollen, thus causing the pink color.
There are several causes of pinkeye. The most common form is caused by a virus infection that is often associated with a head cold. Virus pinkeye is highly contagious and passed on to others by direct contact with the patient and his or her secretions or with contaminated objects or surfaces. Patients usually report awakening in the morning with a crusty mucous in their eyes and perhaps a small amount of mucous during the daytime. One may have the sensation of grittiness, burning or just irritation. Usually both eyes are involved. Virus pinkeye will cure itself, so no treatment is necessary. Over-the-counter eye drops such as Naphcon-A may provide some relief from the symptoms. It has to run its course and is usually gone within one week but may take up to two weeks.
Another form of infectious pinkeye is caused by a bacterial infection. This is usually not associated with the common cold and is more common in children than in adults. It is also very contagious and is spread as mentioned above in virus pinkeye. Patients with this infection often have just one eye involved and it is usually “stuck shut” upon awakening. The affected eye or eyes usually produce a pus-like discharge throughout the entire day, which helps to differentiate it from virus pinkeye and only has mucous upon awakening. Bacterial pinkeye is treatable with prescription antibiotic eye drops, which will usually clear up the infection within a few days.
Another form of pinkeye is due to allergies. This is usually caused by airborne particles such as pollen or cat dander to which a person is allergic. A patient with this form of pinkeye usually has both eyes affected, has an itchy feeling and also can produce some crusting upon awakening. Prescription allergy eye drops from your doctor are available for more severe symptoms.
Contagiousness seems to be the greatest concern about pinkeye. As mentioned, the infectious varieties caused by either virus or bacteria are highly contagious from contact with the discharge from the eye. Children who are too young to understand the concepts of hygiene are the most contagious. That’s why it is so prevalent in preschool and kindergarten.
It is generally believed that a child who has been placed on antibiotic eye medicine can return to school after 24 hours of treatment. Although there is no scientific proof to support this concept, it does seem to work. My personal bias is that a person with infectious pinkeye is contagious as long as there is discharge from the eyes.
Practicing good hygiene is the best way of limiting the spread of pinkeye. Once you have symptoms of an infection, I suggest the following:
- Don’t touch your eyes with your hands.
- Wash your hands with soap and water thoroughly and frequently.
- Don’t share towels or face cloths with anyone.
- Change to new eye cosmetics, especially mascara.
- Follow your eye doctor’s recommendation if you wear contact lenses.
If you have any of the following symptoms, see your doctor immediately:
- Decreased vision
- Sensitivity to bright light
- Sensation of something painful in the eye.