Pink eye is an infection or inflammation usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection. It affects the outer membrane of the eyelid and eyeball, which covers the white part of the eye. Each year, around 3 million people in the US alone contract pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis. There are three types of pink eye: viral, bacterial, and allergic. The body may fight off the infection without medical intervention. Most treatments focus on the relief of symptoms, which people can do at home. However, some symptoms may require treatment from a medical professional.
Call an Ophthalmologist
If there is pain, sensitivity to light, or vision issues, the individual should seek medical advice from an ophthalmologist, a doctor who specializes in eye care. The ophthalmologist will look for large amounts of pus or mucus oozing from the eye. Fever, chills, and aches that develop along with other symptoms could also indicate a possible eye infection. Symptoms continuing for a week or more combined with these other symptoms point to an infection and may require an antibiotic.
Over-the-counter artificial tears may help relieve symptoms of allergic, bacterial, or viral pink eye. Apply a few times a day to the eye to relieve dryness. Eye drops that contain preservatives can further irritate the eye. Avoid eye drops that contain steroids. If there is itching, swelling, or breathing issues following the application, it could be a sign of an allergic reaction. Don’t allow the tip of the eye dropper to touch an infected eye.
A warm, damp cloth provides relief, especially if there is dried mucus causing the eyelids to stick together. Always use a clean washcloth each time before you apply a compress to an infected eye. Use separate washcloths if the infection is in both eyes. Soak the washcloth in warm water, wring out well, and place across the eye. If there is pain or swelling in the eyes, a cool, but not cold, compress helps reduce pain and swelling.
The most common type of pink eye is similar to a cold and is viral in origin. It is caused by a virus, not bacteria, and is called viral pink eye. Antibiotics are ineffective against viral infections. However, if the viral pink eye is from herpes simplex, a doctor will still prescribe antibiotics. Bacterial pink eye usually produces more mucus than viral pink eye. Although a bacterial infection will likely go away within ten days without treatment, antibiotic eye drops or ointment will usually improve symptoms within 24 to 36 hours.
Allergy Medications and Eye Drops
There are two types of allergic conjunctivitis, acute and chronic. The acute type is generally confined to certain times of the year, while the chronic type can flare up year round. Pollen, grass, dust, mold spores, ragweed, pet dander, or other allergens can be sources of allergic flare-ups. However, it may occur as the result of a sensitivity to certain eye medications or contact lens solutions. Reducing exposure will improve symptoms significantly. Over-the-counter allergy medications, such as decongestants and antihistamines, will help ease symptoms. Allergy eye drops may relieve itching or burning.
Physicians recommend not wearing contacts while infected with pink eye. Contacts may irritate an already-sensitive eye, so switch to eyeglasses if possible. The contacts can be worn again once the redness leaves and there is no discharge. The physician may instruct the individual to throw away disposable contacts and their case if the pink eye was an infectious type. If the contacts are not disposable, eye professionals recommend soaking them in a lens disinfectant overnight before placing them in the eye again. Disinfectant solutions have an expiration date that designates the period of effectiveness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, eyeglasses can harbor bacteria that can cause pink eye. Because eyeglasses are so close to the eyes, bacteria transferred to them can be a potential source of infection. To clean eyeglasses and remove oils and bacteria, place them under running warm water. Add a small drop of soap between the fingers and rub the lenses, nosepiece, and earpieces gently. Rinse thoroughly. Dry with a lint-free cloth. Never breathe on eyeglasses to fog them up in order to clean them. This process can add unwanted bacteria from the mouth onto the eyeglasses.
Don’t Rub the Eyes
An early sign of pink eye is an urge to rub the eyes. Rubbing the eyes can transmit bacteria or a virus from the hands or fingers and cause the infection to spread. Pink eye may cause irritation but seldom causes pain. However, rubbing an infected eye may not only worsen the irritation, it may also spread the infection. If the infection affects a single eye, rubbing it, then touching the uninfected eye can transfer the infection. Rubbing too vigorously can cause damage to the eye lens.
Handwashing is Important
Wash hands frequently to avoid spreading the infection. The CDC recommends washing hands with soap and warm water before and after applying eye drops or compresses to the eyes. Also, wash the hands before and after cleaning any discharge that has accumulated around the eye to prevent spreading the infection. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol to sanitize the hands before and after any pink eye treatments are applied.
To avoid transferring pink eye to others, wash pillowcases, toys, clothing, washcloths, towels, and anything else that the infected individual may have touched. Surfaces touched by the infected individual in bathrooms, kitchens, and living areas may have residual bacteria that could pass on the infection. Makeup is often a source for bacterial pink eye infections. It’s a good idea to throw out old eye makeup and replace it after a pink eye infection. Wearing makeup while infected can cause the infection to spread or lead to further irritation.