What Is Conjunctivitis | Signs, Symptoms, & Treatments for Pink Eye
Conjunctivitis is the inflammation of the conjunctiva. Conjunctiva is a clear tissue that lines the inside of the eyelid and covers the white part of the eye. In this article, we will discuss everything conjunctivitis and will use the terms pink eye and conjunctivitis interchangeably. Do make note, however, that “pink eye” in the medical community is actually known as only viral conjunctivitis.
The conjunctiva over the white part of your eye is transparent and contains blood vessels. Any inflammation can cause the blood vessels to dilate. The result of this dilation is red eyes that appear bloodshot.
Conjunctivitis can have many different root causes. While pink eye might look unattractive, it rarely turns into a serious condition. However, if you think your newborn baby has pink eye, it is important to contact your pediatrician as it may cause an infection that turns into vision problems since babies have a weaker immune system.
The viral form of conjunctivitis is highly contagious and can especially run rampant among daycares and schools. Luckily, it does not affect your vision when taken care of promptly. With an estimated 3 million cases of pink eye every year in the United States, pink eye is a common condition, especially among children.
Related: Eyelid Allergy
Causes of Pink Eye
There are many causes of pink eye. While most cases of conjunctivitis are caused by bacterial or viral infections, you can also have allergic reactions that affect your eyes. Regardless of the underlying cause, most people experience similar symptoms.
A variety of viruses can cause pink eye that you may not even realize. If you are experiencing an upper respiratory tract infection, the common cold or even a sore throat, these viruses can all lead to an outbreak of pink eye. The most common viruses that can cause pink eye are the adenovirus and herpes virus, and both are very contagious.
Adenoviruses is very common and can cause sore throat, bronchitis, diarrhea, pneumonia and pink eye.
You can contract the adenovirus at any age. If you have a weakened immune system or chronic respiratory or cardiac disease you are more like to contract the adenovirus.
The herpes virus can cause irritation to the eye. Eye herpes is sometimes misdiagnosed as conjunctivitis or pink eye. Both conditions are caused by a virus. If eye herpes is suspected, a culture test will be performed to see if you test positive for 1 HSV (HSV-1). After testing has been completed, you will be able to receive proper treatment.
A bacteria form of pink eye can occur from an infection such as Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pneumonia or Haemophilus. Bacterial pink eye is very commonly spread among children and can be contagious.
Staphylococcus aureus is a common bacterium that is generally found in the upper respiratory tract and on the skin. It is the leading cause of infections affecting the skin and soft tissues. It is commonly referred to as a staph infection.
Streptococcus pneumonia is commonly found in the respiratory tract. Only 5–10% of adults without children are carriers, while 20-60% of school-aged children are carriers. The bacteria are usually longer lasting in children than adults.
Haemophilus bacteria can cause different illnesses including problems with bones, joints, nervous system and breathing. One common type, Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b), is very serious. Haemophilus influenzae type b usually causes disease in children less than five years old.
If you are suffering from bacterial conjunctivitis, it is important not to touch or rub your eyes. Doing so can spread the bacteria and make it harder for you to get rid of the disease.
If you have a reaction to common allergens such as pollen, mold, pet dander or dust mites, you may experience eye irritation that leads to pink eye. It is important to get proper allergy testing done if you think this is contributing to your eye issues. Knowing what allergens to avoid will help you heal and not contract the disease again.
There are several different parasites that can affect your eyes. Parasitic eye infections do not always present symptoms, but when symptoms occur, they are similar to those you would find when diagnosing pink eye (eye pain, redness, tears or discharge, vision issues, sensitivity to light and dry discharge around eyelids and eyelashes).
The parasites that are responsible for pink eye are the demodex folliculorum (d. folliculorum). These mites are found in your eyelashes and normally do not cause any disease. Sometimes these mites can cause demodicosis. Demodicosis leads to irritation around the eyelashes, unusual eyelash loss, decreased vision and conjunctivitis (pink eye).
To decrease the chance of parasites invading your eye area, it is important to wash your hands regularly and wash your clothes, sheets and towels in hot water. You will also want to cook food to the proper temperature to avoid bacteria getting on your hands. Always wear some type of bug spray when going outdoors during insect season. Finally, properly care for your contacts if you wear contact lenses. It is unhealthy to wear your contacts while sleeping or swimming. Always use a specialized contact solution to store and clean your contacts.
Reaction to Chemical Irritants
You can contract toxic pink eye by getting chemicals, liquids, fumes or smoke in your eye. If this happens, you must quickly flush your eye with water to remove any toxic chemicals left on the eye.
A mild chemical pink eye can also be caused by the chlorine in pools and being exposed to manmade pollution. In this case, once the eye is rinsed, the redness and irritation should start to go away immediately. You can also use artificial tears or an over-the-counter eye ointment to help with any pain you experience.
If you experience toxic or mild chemical pink eye, it is not contagious and symptoms should dissipate as soon as you are no longer in contact with the chemical.
Pink eye can be caused by eye drops or ointment placed on the eyes. This is normally seen in newborns who receive the eye drops or ointment to help prevent bacterial eye infections. This type of pink eye is very mild and symptoms such as red eyes and eyelid swelling should dissipate within 24 to 36 hours.
Both Gonorrhea and Chlamydia can cause pink eye. Although rare, both STDs can cause a form of bacterial conjunctivitis to occur. If left untreated, you may experience vision loss. Pink eye can also be transmitted to your baby during childbirth if you have existing Gonorrhea or Chlamydia bacteria in the birth canal.
Related: Allergic Reaction On Eyelids
Types of Pink Eye
There are five main types of pink eye. While some are more severe than others, most clear up within several days. If you have a newborn that is experiencing pink eye, consult your doctor right away as eye and vision issues may occur.
Bacterial conjunctivitis is a serious form of pink eye. It can be caused by various forms of bacteria. It can cause vision or eye issues if not addressed.
Viral conjunctivitis is triggered by a virus like the common cold. Although very contagious, this type of pink eye generally clears up after several days without the use of any medication or treatment.
Allergic conjunctivitis can occur in people that suffer from common allergies such as dust, animal dander and pollen. It can also be caused by chemicals such as pool chlorine and manmade pollution. Pink eye can occur on a seasonal basis or even flare up year-round.
Giant papillary conjunctivitis is caused from the long-term use of contacts or an artificial eye. While the cause is unknown, it is thought to be caused by allergies to foreign bodies in the eye.
Ophthalmia neonatorum is a severe form of pink eye that affects newborns. It is imperative that you take your newborn to the doctor if you suspect pink eye. Pink eye in a newborn can quickly cause damage to the eye(s) or even blindness.
Symptoms of Pink Eye
The symptoms of pink eye are fairly self-explanatory with redness in the whites of the eye being the number one clue that pink eye may be present.
If you have redness in the white part of your eye or in the inner eyelid, this is generally the first tell-tale sign that you have pink eye. If the eyes are red, but you have no other symptoms, your eyes may just be bloodshot from not enough sleep, disrupted sleep or dry eyes.
Increase in Tears
Irritation on the surface of your eye can cause an increase in tears. This can be caused by a viral, bacterial or allergic reaction. It can also be caused by a foreign object in the eye such as an eyelash.
Swelling of the lining of your eye can cause redness and irritation, especially if you touch or rub your eyes.
Depending on the type of pink eye you contract, you may have watery or more solid discharge. This discharge can vary from clear (like tears) to a thicker yellow or green substance. While it may start out in liquid form, after sleeping it can harden, making it difficult to remove from your eyes.
Any irritation to your eyes can cause a burning sensation. Burning should improve after the eyes are flushed with water and toxins or irritants are removed.
Itchy eyes can cause redness and swelling. If your eyes are itchy, place a cold compress over the eye area. Try to avoid touching or rubbing your eyes as this can cause the itchiness to increase.
Blurred Vision and Sensitivity to Light
If you experience blurred vision or sensitivity to light, contact your doctor right away. You may have a serious eye or health condition that needs immediate treatment.
Swollen Lymph Nodes
Pink eye can cause the lymph nodes behind your ears to swell if the infection is viral. These are the lymph nodes closest to your eyes. However, this swelling is a sign that your body is fighting off the infection that caused pink eye.
How is Conjunctivitis Diagnosed?
Your doctor will take into account the examination of your eye(s), symptoms, and patient or family history when determining what type of pink eye you have.
Conjunctivitis is characterized by redness and swelling but finding the type of conjunctivitis can be difficult. If your doctor is unable to properly diagnose the type of pink eye you are experiencing, they may take a sample of your eye discharge and send it to a lab. The lab will be able to test the discharge and present a firm diagnosis.
Viral conjunctivitis usually presents watery eye discharge and is accompanied by a common cold or respiratory infection. The eye will usually be more pink in color.
Bacteria Conjunctivitis is generally linked to ear infections. It can happen shortly after birth as well. Eye discharge tends to have a thick consistency and the eye tends to be more red instead of pink.
If you have allergic conjunctivitis, you will notice that your eyes itch throughout the day and it will be hard for you not to itch them constantly. The pollen counts are high and you may also be suffering from asthma, hay fever or eczema.
When Do I Contact My Eye Doctor?
When your eyes are puffy and red it can look alarming to you and others around you. It is important if this happens to seek medical attention right away. Your primary care doctor will be able to properly diagnose your eye condition.
Other signs that you should contact your doctor include: yellow or green discharge around your eye (in severe cases your eyelashes will stick together after sleeping), light sensitivity, blurred vision, double vision, if you can see rings of light around objects, chills, face pain, fatigue, swollen glands or high fever.
If you have a weakened immune system, you may be more susceptible to pink eye and also have a harder time getting rid of it. Also, within a few days your symptoms should begin to lessen. If it feels like pink eye is not getting better or getting worse, you should contact your doctor to see if you were allergic to any medication that you were given or misdiagnosed. Your primary care doctor may also refer you to an eye specialist if your condition does not improve.
Treatment of Pink Eye
The treatment for pink eye can vary based on the type of pink eye you are diagnosed with. If you experience red, irritated eyes, it is recommended to schedule an appointment with your eye doctor as soon as possible. Just describing symptoms to an eye doctor is not the best way to get diagnosed. Often, various eye issues will have similar symptoms. Once an eye doctor has a chance to examine your eyes, they can accurately diagnose your eye issue(s).
If you are experiencing conjunctivitis, you may also deal with dry eyes, blepharitis (inflammation of the eyelid) or eye infections. Bacterial conjunctivitis is more severe and can cause corneal ulcers which may result in a permanent decrease in vision.
Contact lens wearers should not wear their contacts if they develop symptoms. Having contacts in your eyes could cause your eye redness and irritation to get worse and will also keep your inflamed eyes from healing. It is best to wear eye glasses during this time. Once your doctor has examined your eyes, he will be able to tell you when you can wear your contacts again.
If you continuously have problems with your contacts causing pink eye, it may be best to switch to glasses. Invest in coatings and thinner lenses so you can minimize reflections and feel confident in your eye glasses.
If you wear eye makeup daily, stop using your eye makeup as soon as you see redness or irritation in your eye area. Makeup can contribute to allergic eye symptoms and can introduce bacteria into the eye area. If you feel your makeup was not the cause of your eye irritation, you should still throw the makeup away and use new makeup when your eyes return to their normal state.
It is also important not to use redness reducing eye drops if you think you may have pink eye. These eye drops can make your condition worse and make your eyes very uncomfortable.
If you have viral conjunctivitis, there is no medical treatment prescribed and the pink eye will need to run its course over the duration of several days. If symptoms persist, use a cold, damp cloth and place it over your eyes several times a day. Since pink eye is highly contagious, make sure you only use the cloths once before washing and you do not share the cloths with anyone.
Bacterial conjunctivitis is a more serious form of pink eye compared with viral conjunctivitis. After being diagnosed by an eye doctor, you will generally be prescribed eye drops or an ointment that contains antibiotics. The prescription drops or creams will help kill the bacteria that is aggravating your eyes.
If you suffer from allergic conjunctivitis, you will often have additional symptoms that coincide with seasonal allergies or environmental allergies such as dust and pet dander. Your doctor may prescribe allergy medication to help give you relief during flare-ups. If seasonal allergies are present, your doctor may suggest you start taking allergy medication a few weeks before allergy season starts so you can be proactive.
While stopping the use of contact lenses and makeup can help heal your eyes, there are also a few home remedies that might help your pink eye as well.
If you have viral pink eye, there is no home remedy that will speed up healing. The best thing you can do is use a cold, damp cloth. Even with the cold, it will not provide complete comfort and it can be easy to contaminate the other eye and surfaces if you are not careful about cleaning the cloth frequently.
The bacterial form of pink eye can involve more thick discharge than the viral version. In this case, you can take an over-the-counter pain killer or use artificial tears/eye drops from your local pharmacy. You’ll also want to keep the eyelids clean. We recommend the Heyedrate Lid and Lash Cleanser for daily eyelid hygiene.
Bacterial pink eye benefits more from a warm, damp cloth. Make sure the cloth is clean and lay it over your eyes. You can leave the cloth in place until it cools. Repeat as many times as day as needed. Make sure each time you use the warm compress, you grab a clean cloth. If both eyes are infected, use a different cloth for each eye. The warm compress can also be helpful for any dried discharge that has formed around your eyelids.
If you have allergic pink eye, a cool, damp cloth is recommended. Continue to take any over-the-counter allergy medicine (or prescription if severe) to help lessen your symptoms. You can also use eye drops that are specifically for allergies. Most importantly, if you know the cause of the allergy, remove it for immediate relief.
Preventing Pink Eye
No matter what form of pink eye you have, it is important to see your eye doctor right away. Once you have been diagnosed, you can take steps to prevent pink eye in the future. Preventing pink eye is really as simple as keeping good hygiene and not sharing cleaning or eye products. The following tips can help you prevent pink eye.
It is important that you never share your contact lenses with friends. Everyone’s eyes are different and even with proper rinsing, sharing contacts is a big no-no.
Always rinse your contacts with saline solution before putting them in a container for the night. Then rinse them again in the morning with saline solution before placing them in your eyes. If you wear monthly disposable contacts, you should consider using a solution that will get rid of impurities during the night. Never use water to clean your contacts.
If you wear contacts on a frequent basis, you should remove them before getting into a hot shower, hot tub, etc. The warm air and water can trap bacteria between your eyes and your contacts.
Keep It Clean
Unclean surfaces can harbor bacteria. Wash your hands multiple times a day, especially when you are using public restrooms, water fountains, etc. Also, take into consideration washing your hands more frequently when you are around groups of people. Since pink eye is highly contagious, it is very easy to transfer from one person to another. Keeping your hands clean will prevent bacteria from entering your eyes when you touch your face throughout the day. If you are not near a handwashing station, it is wise to keep a travel hand sanitizer in your purse or pocket.
Bacteria can live on surfaces we use and touch every day. It is important to keep those surfaces clean with a bleach cleaner or natural vinegar cleaner. Surface such as countertops, light switch covers, faucets and door knobs should be sanitized daily (more if pink eye is apparent).
Bacteria can also thrive on soft surfaces. Wash your pillow cases, sheets and bath towels daily to prevent spreading the infection.
Colds and Allergies
If you are suffering from a cold, make sure you are always covering your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough. This will decrease the number of germs that fall onto surfaces. After sneezing or coughing wash or sanitize your hands. Do not touch or rub your eyes when you have a cold. It can not only spread germs, but also, intensify the redness and puffiness of your eyes.
If you have seasonal allergies, talk to your doctor about what kind of medications or precautions you can take before allergy season ever starts. Having medication in your system before the allergen hits its peak can help you manage symptoms more effectively.
Public swimming pools and even natural rivers, lakes and oceans carry some forms of bacteria in the water. If you have sensitivity in your eye area and are prone to eye infections, always wear swim goggles when you are in the water. Swim goggles can help keep the water from making direct contact with your eyes. After swimming, rinse off your face and body to remove any impurities that may cause irritation.
Even when you follow all the tips of preventing conjunctivitis, you can still get the virus. Especially if there is an outbreak at your child’s daycare or school or even at your office.
If you think you may have pink eye, do not go to work or take your child to daycare or school before seeing your eye doctor. Your doctor can determine an accurate diagnosis and let you know when you or your child can return to your normal routine. Pink eye is contagious about three to five days after it is diagnosed. Most, if not all, symptoms should dissipate within 10 days.
Even if you or your child has had pink eye in the past, it is still a good idea to seek medical advice. Redness in the white part of your eyes or in your eyelids can be a symptom of a severe eye condition. The sooner you seek medical help, the less chance you have of dealing with permanent eye issues.