Pink eye or conjunctivitis is a form of eye inflammation that makes eyes look red or pink. The contagious condition affects six million Americans every year and spreads quickly from several different sources. People of all ages can contract pink eye.
The thin membrane that lines the inner eyelid and the whites of the eyes is the conjunctiva. When this area becomes inflamed and swollen, the tiny blood vessels in the eyes are more visible, producing the color that gives pink eye its name. While pink eye is irritating, it normally clears up within a few weeks, if not sooner. Identifying the cause of the infection can help treat symptoms and stop the spread.
Pink eye from a bacteria or virus is highly contagious. There is a chance of transmitting the infection through shared objects and direct contact for as long as symptoms persist. Someone with a bacterial pink eye infection may be contagious until 24 hours after starting a round of antibiotics. Often, pink eye spreads when people touch their eyes with their hands and then touch other people or household objects. Sharing makeup and sleeping on dirty pillowcases can help reduce the risk of contracting pink eye or giving an infection to someone else.
Blocked tear ducts may lead to pink eye, particularly in newborns. It’s natural for eyes to produce tears for moisture, which drain from the corner of the eye. If there is a blockage in the tear duct, a baby’s eye can become irritated, leading to the painful symptoms of pink eye. Doctors may recommend saline drops or antibiotics if the cause is bacterial. Parents may also use a warm washcloth to remove discharge, and a cool compress can alleviate swelling around the baby’s eyes.
Pink eye is most commonly caused by a virus. When stemming from a respiratory infection, viral pink eye typically starts in one eye and spreads to the other eye within 24 to 72 hours. This type of infection usually causes a watery discharge instead of thick mucus, with burning, visibly red eyes. Viral pink eye is highly contagious and quickly spreads in crowded places. There is no cure for viral pink eye, as people need to wait for the virus to run its course. A warm washcloth can provide relief from symptoms.
Bacterial infections can cause contagious pink eye too, which often presents with sore eyes and sticky discharge. Staphylococcal and streptococcal bacteria are responsible for the majority of cases, although contaminated cosmetics and touching eyes with dirty hands can also cause it. Antibiotics and eye drops are a common prescription for bacterial pink eye; children may require an ointment that is easier to administer. The infection often subsides within a few days of starting antibiotics, but it is essential to take the full course as prescribed to stop conjunctivitis from coming back.
A foreign object in the eye can also cause pink eye. People who notice a discharge coming from watery eyes may have contracted the infection from an item that is stuck and irritating the eyelid, cornea, or iris. Flushing the eye to remove the dirt, dust, or other foreign particles may lead to short-term redness or irritation, but the symptoms should clear up within a day or two. If the first round of flushing does not relieve the pain, eye doctors can take a closer look and figure out the best plan for removing the foreign object.
Chlorine from swimming pools is a common example of eye irritation from chemicals. If chlorine gets into the eyes and is not rinsed out, it could lead to a case of pink eye. The sooner the eyes are rinsed, the better, so that the chemicals have less of a chance of causing irritation. Eyes that will not stop watering and a discharge of mucus indicate chemical irritation and possible pink eye.
Millions of people deal with allergies every year, and sometimes allergic conjunctivitis results. Allergens prompt the production of additional histamine, a natural protectant, which can lead to inflammation as the body fights what it thinks is an infection. Allergic conjunctivitis typically presents in both eyes with a strong itch, swelling, and increased tear production. Pink eye from allergies may develop alongside other symptoms like a scratchy throat, irritated nose, and sneezing. Anti-histamine medications and eye drops can alleviate this discomfort and help pink eye clear up faster.
People with pink eye usually feel like something is stuck in their eye. This can result in an itchy, burning sensation in addition to the telltale redness. Puffy eyelids and watering are also symptoms of pink eye. Some people experience hazy or blurry vision, and others become overly sensitive to light. Extra tear production, mucus discharge, and crusting may develop. The majority of people with pink eye report an uncomfortable urge to touch their eye and soothe the irritation, although this can just make it worse and spread the infection to other people.
People who regularly wear contact lenses, particularly the extended-wear variety, are at a higher risk of pink eye. When a person catches the infection, they must stop wearing their contacts until it resolves. Doctors also recommend that anyone with pink eye discard the disposable contact lenses they were using to reduce the risk of repeat infection. Other risk factors for pink eye include exposure to allergens and contact with people who have a current case of bacterial or viral conjunctivitis.
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