Pinkeye (Conjunctivitis): Causes and Treatment

Pinkeye, or conjunctivitis, is the redness and swelling of the thin tissue covering the white part of the eye and the inside of the eyelids. Pinkeye can vary in severity from mild redness of the eye to bleeding under the eye, eye swelling, and thick discharge from the eyes.

Possible causes

Pinkeye has several different possible causes:

1) Bacteria

Bacterial conjunctivitis is a common reason for children to be sent home from daycare or school. It may affect one or both eyes. Symptoms include red or pink, itchy, painful eyes with a moderate amount of green or yellow discharge. The affected eyes may be crusted and shut in the morning.

Treatment: This condition is treated with antibiotic eye drops or ointment. Antibiotics can shorten the course of the illness.

Contagious period: Ends 24 hours after medication is started or when the symptoms are no longer present.

2) Viruses

Viral conjunctivitis sometimes occurs along with an upper respiratory tract infection, cold, or sore throat. It may affect only one or both eyes. The symptoms include pink, swollen, watering eyes which are sensitive to light.

Treatment: None. This condition goes away on its own and does not need any treatment. Antibiotic drops do not help with the symptoms or reduce the spread in this condition.

Contagious period: Continues while symptoms are present.

3) Allergies

Allergic conjunctivitis can be caused by allergies to pollen, dust mites, molds, or animal dander. The reaction may be immediate or delayed for many hours or days after the contact. This usually affects both the eyes. The symptoms include itching, redness, and excessive tearing.

Treatment: Allergic eye drops.

Contagious period: None. This condition is not contagious.

4) Eye irritants

Irritant conjunctivitis appears shortly after contact with an irritating substance. The most common irritants are contact lenses and lens solutions, chlorinated water, smog, and cosmetics. Symptoms include red and watery eyes.

Treatment: Removing the irritant.

Contagious period: None. This condition is not contagious.

5) Birth

Newborn conjunctivitis is caused when a baby picks up certain types of bacteria during vaginal birth from an infected mother. The symptoms usually start a couple of days after birth. The symptoms include red eyes, swelling, and drainage. This type of conjunctivitis may be prevented with the use of antibiotic eye ointment in newborns at birth.

Treatment: Depends on the type of bacteria that caused the infection.

Prevention is key

Hand hygiene

Infectious pinkeye (viral or bacterial) is transmitted by hands becoming contaminated by direct contact with discharge from an infected eye or by touching other surfaces that have been contaminated and then touching your own eyes. It can be prevented by good hand hygiene before and after touching the eyes, nose, and mouth, and careful sanitation of objects that are commonly touched.

Allergy triggers

If your child is prone to allergic conjunctivitis, keep windows and doors closed on days when the pollen is heavy, and dust and vacuum often to limit allergy triggers.

Avoid irritants

Irritant conjunctivitis can be prevented by avoiding contact with the irritating causes. If you wear contact lenses, wash your hands before putting in and taking out your lenses. Clean, store, and replace your contact lenses as instructed by your eye health care provider. If you have been diagnosed with conjunctivitis, do not wear your lenses until you have recovered, and then start with a fresh pair of lenses.

If your child develops any concerning symptoms, please talk to your pediatrician for diagnosis and possible treatment.

Image credit: National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), Division of Viral Diseases

Categories: Antibiotics, Asthma/Allergies, Influenza/Colds
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