Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye): Causes, Symptoms, Treatments
Conjunctivitis is a common inflammation of the eye’s conjunctiva, a thin membrane covering the sclera or white of the eye and lining the inside of the eyelids. The condition gets the familiar moniker pink eye from the reddish pinky color of the whites of the eyes caused by inflamed blood vessels in the conjunctiva.
Pink eye can have three primary causes: Bacterial, viral, and allergic. Although the term pink eye is often used for all three types, eye care professionals usually say pink eye only when referring to a viral cause. While very rare, it is possible that cataracts, a clouding of the eye lens can cause various eye infections, including pink eye.
Conjunctivitis can happen to anyone. If the cause is viral or bacterial, it’s typically highly contagious and easily passed from person to person, especially in more crowded conditions like those seen in school environments.
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Symptoms of Pink Eye
The main symptom of this condition is the reddish discoloration of the sclera. Others include:
Itchy, watery eyes
A feeling of something in the eye
Burning and stinging
Mild light sensitivity
Types of Conjunctivitis and their Symptoms
Sometimes, different types of conjunctivitis may have somewhat different symptoms, while some cases of the condition may be more severe than others.
This differential symptomology may break down like this:
Viral pink eye: Watering and itching with a thin discharge and some sensitivity to light. It may be seen in both eyes or either.
Allergic conjunctivitis: Watering, burning, swollen or puffy eyelids, and light sensitivity. Both eyes are affected, and other symptoms of allergies are typically present, such as sneezing, nasal stuffiness, and a runny nose. This type is not contagious.
Bacterial conjunctivitis: Burning, stinging, watering, and itchy eyes with light sensitivity. There may be a sticky, greenish, or yellowish eye discharge goopy enough to cause the eyelids to stick together during sleep. Blurry vision may also occur. It may be present in one eye or both.
Conjunctivitis requires an evaluation and diagnosis by an eye care professional. Other eye conditions, such as blepharitis, dry eye syndrome, and other eye infections, can mimic the symptoms of conjunctivitis. Only your eye doctor can tell you for sure what is causing your eye problem.
Red, irritated eyes are always an indication to see your eye care professional promptly.
More About the Types of Conjunctivitis
Environmental irritants like pet dander, mold, dust, and pollen can cause allergic conjunctivitis in people prone to seasonal allergies like pollen and those occurring year-round like pet dander and dust. This type of conjunctivitis cannot be passed from person to person.
This is typically caused by viruses similar to the ones that cause the common cold. This type is highly contagious and is passed to others by coughing, sneezing, and failing to wash the hands. This is why you should never touch your face or eyes with unwashed hands.
This is typically caused by a direct transfer of bacteria from a contaminated surface to the eye. It’s highly contagious. This is again why hand-washing is so important. If you can’t wash your hands, don’t touch your face or eyes.
Other Causes of Conjunctivitis
These may include:
Blocked tear ducts
Fumes, contact with, or spillage from chemicals
Prolonged wearing of contact lenses
Smoke and air pollution
Foreign objects in the eye
Treatment of Pink Eye
Although the condition is often self-limiting and will clear up by itself within about a week, it’s still important to see your eye doctor to be sure the problem isn’t something more serious. This is especially true if symptoms are severe or don’t resolve within a week or so.
Viral Pink Eye
This cannot be treated with antibiotics because viruses don’t respond to them. This condition typically clears within a few days without medical treatment. However, it can be uncomfortable, so your eye doctor can recommend some over-the-counter and home remedies for symptom relief.
Allergy medications may do a lot to limit or prevent eye allergy symptoms. Some of these medications work best if taken before symptoms appear before the allergy season starts.
Others take several weeks to reach full effectiveness. Over-the-counter drops for dry eyes may help, and antihistamine eye drops may fight symptoms by blocking a substance called histamine. The body releases histamine during allergic attacks. Never use eye drops for any eye condition without talking to your eye doctor first.
Although this type generally clears by itself in about the same time frame as the others, more severe cases may require antibiotic therapy and may result in vision loss if left untreated.
Natural Conjunctivitis Remedies
You may find recipes and ideas online for solutions for home care of conjunctivitis, but it’s foolish to use these on yourself or a child without proper clearance from your eye doctor first. These natural treatments may not be effective or, worse, may even be harmful to the eyes and harm your vision.
Recovering from Pink Eye
It’s generally anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to recover from pink eye. During this time, do not wear contact lenses unless your eye doctor has approved it. Contact lenses may worsen both the condition and the symptoms.
You’ll likely need to stick to eyeglasses while you recover, and photochromic lenses will help protect your eyes from UV rays, blue light, and sensitivity to light. Ask your eye doctor about these unique lenses.
Contact lenses increase your risk of contracting conjunctivitis overall. Proper lens care will help reduce this risk.
Preventing Pink Eye
This is mostly a matter of common sense. Here are ten ideas to reduce the risk of pink eye:
1. Minimize allergy symptoms before they can start.
2. Swim goggles will protect your eyes from microbes in the water. Never swim with an active case of conjunctivitis.
3. Disinfect commonly touched household objects frequently: Doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, surfaces, faucets, and telephones.
4. Follow contact lens care instructions to the letter. Daily disposable lenses are safer with regard to possible conjunctivitis and other eye infections.
5. Wash your hands throughout the day, especially in public places.
6. Use hand sanitizer often.
7. Don’t shower with contact lenses. This prevents bacteria from the water getting trapped in your eyes.
8. Never share personal items like washcloths or hand towels. Use disposable tissues instead.
9. Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing, then wash your hands.
10. Don’t rub at or touch your eyes with unwashed hands. In fact, train yourself to keep your hands away from your face.
Even if you’re very careful, pink eye can still happen to anyone. If you or your child contracts it, be careful not to transmit it to others. Wash your hands and your child’s hands frequently. You’ll have to keep your child home until their eye doctor says they are no longer contagious.
Be sure to inform the child’s teacher so extra precautions can be taken to protect the other children, such as extra sanitation of the classroom. Your child should be able to return to school about a week after the diagnosis.
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Never assume you have pink eye based on your symptoms alone. Pink eye symptoms resemble those of many eye conditions, some of them much more serious. Always consult with your eye doctor for any eye problem immediately.
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