Signs and symptoms of pink eye

Maybe you glanced in the mirror and noticed your eyes looking redder than usual. Or your child is rubbing their eyes a lot or has swollen eyelids. What’s going on? 

“There are a lot of reasons why eyes become irritated,” says Benjamin Bert, M.D., an ophthalmologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. You might jump to the conclusion that you have conjunctivitis — the official term for pink eye which is an eye infection or non-infectious (for those who develop an allergic conjunctivitis) that involves swelling and redness inside the eyes.1,2

Here’s how to know if pink eye is the problem, the types of pink eye, what you can do to treat it and the steps you should take to stop the spread. 

What is pink eye?

Also known as conjunctivitis, pink eye is a common eye infection that causes swelling and redness within the eyelid and white part of the eye.1

What are the symptoms of pink eye?

Inflammation and infection in the eye membrane can cause symptoms, including:3 

  • Pink or red eyes, including the eyelids and under-eye area 
  • Watery eyes
  • Sticky, thick discharge that can make eyelashes stick together
  • Burning or itching in one or both eyes
  • Swelling in the eyelids or around the eyes
  • Feeling like there’s something in your eye, similar to grains of sand
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Blurred vision

Dr. Bert notes that not everyone will have all these symptoms. Redness or a pink hue tends to be most common. Irritation that makes you rub your eyes frequently is also common, and it can make the symptoms worse.

What are the types and causes of pink eye?

There are a few types of conjunctivitis; some are contagious, while others are not. Each has different causes. This chart breaks it down:2,4

Type: Viral
Causes: This is the most common form of pink eye. A person may develop viral pink eye if someone with a viral upper respiratory tract infection sneezes or coughs on or near them. If a person has a cold themselves, it may also spread to the eyes.
Contagious? Yes

Type: Bacterial
Causes: This version is seen more in kids than adults. It is typically related to staph or strep bacteria on a person’s own skin or in their respiratory system. Other potential ways to become infected include touching the eyes with dirty hands or using someone else’s makeup.
Contagious? Yes

Type: Allergic
Causes: This form of pink eye usually develops in people who have seasonal allergies or other allergic conditions, such as asthma. It occurs when an allergen causes a reaction in the eyes. Other risk factors include wearing hard contact lenses, or using soft contacts that a person doesn’t replace as often as is recommended.
Contagious? No

Type: Chemical or Irritant
Causes: This form of pink eye can arise from exposure to pollutants in the air like smoke or dust, the chlorine in pools, or exposure to toxic chemicals.
Contagious? No

How is pink eye diagnosed?

Healthcare providers can often determine whether a person has pink eye based on their symptoms and health history.5 People may want to try a virtual visit if they have had pink eye before.

It’s important to see a provider in person if there is pain, extreme redness, light sensitivity, blurred vision, a weakened immune system, or if symptoms don’t get better.2

If you do visit a doctor, they may use a device called a slit lamp. It uses bright light and magnification to show how inflamed the eye is and see what the underlying cause is, explains Dr. Bert.4 For some cases, a healthcare provider may take a sample of the watery fluid from the eye to send to the lab.2

How is pink eye treated?

The treatment for pink eye depends on the cause of a person’s pink eye.

For viral pink eye: Much like the common cold, there aren’t treatments that make viral pink eye go away. Symptoms can be eased with lubricating eye drops and cold compresses.6 “But in general, the main treatment for viral conjunctivitis is letting the infection run its course,” says Dr. Bert.

For bacterial pink eye: For mild cases, symptoms may improve without treatment. When needed, treatment may include antibiotics, which can be in the form of eye drops or an ointment.6 They may likely prescribe certain types of bacteria, if there is discharge or if a person has a weak immune system. Antibiotics may help the infection clear up faster.6

How can I prevent it from spreading?

Good hygiene practices are important for keeping viral and bacterial pink eye from spreading. One of the biggest reasons that pink eye is common in children is that they are less likely to wash their hands. “They also love touching everything,” says Dr. Bert. “Kids just share more germs in general.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you can take the following steps to help prevent yourself or others from getting pink eye:6

  • Wash your hands often with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds
  • Avoid rubbing or touching your eyes 
  • Wipe away discharge from your eyes several times a day with a clean, wet washcloth or cotton ball. Wash the washcloth in hot water; throw away the cotton ball.
  • Do not share personal items, such as pillows, washcloths, towels, eye drops, eye or face makeup, makeup brushes, contact lenses, contact lens storage cases or eyeglasses
  • Stop wearing contact lenses until your eye doctor says it’s okay to start wearing them again
  • Clean eyeglasses, being careful not to contaminate items (such as hand towels) that might be shared by other people

Children and adults should avoid close contact with others while they are infected. Dr. Bert notes it’s important to maintain good personal hygiene until the symptoms resolve, which is usually in a week or two.7

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