Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis)

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What Is It?

Pink eye or conjunctivitis refers to a redness or irritation of the membranes on the inner part of the eyelids and the membranes (conjunctiva) covering the whites of the eyes. These membranes react to a wide range of bacteria, viruses, allergy-provoking agents, irritants and toxic agents, as well as to underlying diseases within the body. Viral and bacterial forms of conjunctivitis are common in childhood. Overall, there are many causes of pink eye. These can be classified as either infectious or noninfectious.


Viral Pink Eye

The leading cause of a red eye is virus infection. Viral pink eye is usually associated with more of a watery discharge, not green or yellow in color, and is frequently associated with viral “cold-like” symptoms. The eyelids may be swollen. Sometimes looking at bright lights is painful. While viral pink eye may not require an antibiotic, it is a good idea to see your ophthalmologist, as occasionally this form of pink eye can be associated with infection of the cornea (the clear portion of the front of the eyeball). This infection must be correctly detected and treated. Viral pink eye is highly contagious!


Bacterial Pink Eye

The bacteria that most commonly cause infectious pink eye are staphylococci, pneumococci, and streptococci. Symptoms include eye pain, swelling, redness, and a moderate to large amount of discharge, usually yellow or greenish in color. The discharge commonly accumulates after sleeping. You awake with “eyes that are stuck shut”, requiring a warm wash cloth applied to the eyes to remove the discharge. This bacterial pink eye responds to repeated warm wash cloths applied to the eyes and antibiotic eye drops or ointment prescribed by your ophthalmologist. Be careful not to use medication prescribed for someone else, or from an old infection, as these may be inappropriate for your infection or may have been contaminated from other infections by accidentally touching the medicine bottle to infected areas.

When you believe you may have bacterial pink eye, it is very important to see your ophthalmologist immediately for several reasons. First, if the cause is bacterial infection, an antibiotic will be needed to help your infection-fighting immune system to kill this infection. Second, if you experience other symptoms such as a runny nose, cough, or earache, there is a good chance that these symptoms are caused by the same bacteria and an oral antibiotic may very well be needed to reach these germs along with the antibiotic drops or ointment for the eyes. Finally, your ophthalmologist will want to exclude the possibility that the infection has spread to areas where the symptoms may not yet be recognizable.