What is Pink-Eye: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

Pink-eye, also known as conjunctivitis, is the most common eye infection affecting children and adults alike. It is characterized by a red, mildly irritated eye and can be very contagious. Fortunately, pink-eye is easily treatable, and does not cause any long-term damage to the eye.

Causes

Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the clear membrane that covers the whites of the eye and the inner surface of the eyelids. It can be caused by foreign organisms such as bacteria and viruses. These two forms of conjunctivitis can be contagious and are what most people are referring to when they use the term “pink-eye." There are other non-infectious forms of conjunctivitis such as allergic conjunctivitis and chemical induced conjunctivitis.


  • Bacterial conjunctivitis is most often caused by staphylococcal or streptococcal bacteria from our own skin or respiratory system. It can also be contracted by touching the eye after touching a contaminated surface or use of contaminated eye makeup.
  • Viral conjunctivitis is most commonly caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold. It can be contracted by being exposed to individuals who cough and sneeze while having upper respiratory tract infections. It can also develop in someone who has an upper respiratory tract infection as the virus moves along the mucous membranes that connect our lungs, throat, nose, tear ducts and conjunctiva.
  • Allergic conjunctivitis is common in patients who experience seasonal allergies. In this type of conjunctivitis the eyes are exposed to an allergen which triggers redness, swelling and itching.
  • Chemical conjunctivitis is most commonly caused by the eyes being exposed to air pollutants or chemicals such as chlorine in a swimming pool.


Symptoms

Conjunctivitis has varying symptoms, depending on what is causing the condition.

Viral conjunctivitis is the most common type of conjunctivitis. It is most commonly caused by adenoviruses. It is more contagious than bacterial conjunctivitis and is contagious while discharge is present.


  • Clear watery discharge
  • Diffuse red eye
  • A gritty, scratch or burning sensation
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Tenderness of the lymph nodes in front of the ear


Bacterial conjunctivitis has similar symptoms to viral conjunctivitis however the discharge tends to be a thick mucous as opposed to watery and there is no tenderness of the lymph nodes. The discharge that comes with bacterial pink-eye most commonly accumulates during sleep, and can glue the eyes shut. In these cases, apply a warm washcloth to the eyes to remove the pus.

Allergic conjunctivitis tends to be associated with a watery discharge and a significant amount of itching. Occasionally allergic conjunctivitis can be associated with significant swelling of the conjunctiva (chemosis) where it can appear as if the white part of the eye is bulging forward.

Treatments

Treatment of conjunctivitis is aimed at increasing patient comfort, reducing the course of the infection or inflammation and preventing the spread of infectious forms of conjunctivitis.

The viruses that most commonly cause viral conjunctivitis are not able to be killed by any topical medications. This type of conjunctivitis needs to run its course, which may take up to two weeks in some cases. Symptoms can be relieved with cool compresses and artificial tear drops. Sometimes topical steroids can be prescribed to help with discomfort however they do not shorten the course of the infection, and in some cases when the steroid drops are discontinued the infection can return.

Bacterial conjunctivitis can be treated effectively with topical antibiotic eye drops. Improvements in symptoms are often very quickly noted but the eye drops need to be taken for as long as 10 days to prevent recurrence.

With both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis great care should be taken to avoid transmitting the infection. Hands should be washed frequently, and touching the eyes and sharing hand or face towels should be avoided.

Allergic conjunctivitis can be treated by avoiding the allergen, and using cold compresses and artificial tears if the reaction is mild. More significant reactions can be treated with topical antihistamine drops, topical NSAIDs or topical steroids. Sometimes oral antihistamines are also required.

Chemical conjunctivitis is treated by flushing the eye with a saline solution to remove the irritant. Acute chemical injuries are medical emergencies and can lead to severe scarring and even loss of the eye.

Alberta Health Care covers the cost of medically necessary visits with a Doctor of Optometry for conditions such as conjunctivitis. Should you have any of the above symptoms or have any concerns with your eyes please book an appointment at one of our five Optometrists’ Clinic locations.

For more information, to ask questions about pink-eye or to schedule an appointment, call our offices. We'd be happy to help!

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