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Answers To Common Questions About Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis)

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Pink eye -- a condition that can be uncomfortable and irritating -- may affect one or both eyes, but it usually doesn't affect your vision. Still, you should schedule an appointment to see an eye doctor (such as one from Arizona Eye Specialists) at the first sign of symptoms to rule out a more serious eye infection. Early diagnosis and treatment help prevent other people from becoming infected and reduce the risk of complications.

What causes pink eye?

Pink eye can have various causes -- both infectious and noninfectious. Inflammatory diseases, chemical agents or allergens, such as pollen, animal dander, and ingredients in cosmetics, are noninfectious causes of pink eye. Cold viruses and bacteria, including chlamydia and gonorrhea, are infectious causes.

Is the condition contagious?

Either viral or bacterial pink eye can be contagious. If you have pink eye, sharing towels or even coughing and sneezing can spread it to other people, as the virus can be transmitted by droplets in the air.

Viral pink eye remains contagious for as long as you have symptoms. Bacterial pink eye normally isn't contagious once you start taking antibiotics and your symptoms begin to improve. Allergic pink eye and pink eye caused by household chemicals are noncontagious.

Can pink eye affect vision?

Ordinarily, the condition isn't serious enough to cause long-term vision problems as long as it's treated early. But a delay in diagnosis and treatment can lead to complications, including inflammation in the cornea, which can affect vision.

Symptoms of conjunctivitis often begin in one eye but can affect the other eye within days. Allergic pink eye generally affects both eyes and causes the eyelids to swell. Both allergic and viral pink eye may cause your eyes to produce more tears. While watery eyes can be bothersome, they don't cause a serious problem.

What are the symptoms?

  • Itchy, burning eyes

  • Sensation that feels like there is sand in your eyes

  • Drainage from the eyes (if drainage is greenish-yellow in color instead of clear and watery, you likely have bacterial pink eye)

  • Discharge that causes a crust to form on your eyelids when you sleep

Although sensitivity to light is a common symptom of pink eye, if your eyes are extremely sensitive to light; you have eye pain; or your vision is blurred, these may be signs that the infection has spread beyond the conjunctiva -- the transparent mucous membrane that lines the inside of the eyelid and covers the white part of the eyeball, known as the sclera.

How do doctors diagnose pink eye?

Your doctor may be able to diagnosis pink eye based on your symptoms. In some cases, he or she may need to use a slit lamp to examine the inside of your eyes or send a sample of the eye discharge to the lab for testing.

What is the treatment for pink eye?

Pink eye symptoms that persist could be a sign of a severe allergy or an illness such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or Crohn's disease (an inflammatory bowel disease). In these cases, your doctor will treat the underlying condition.

Viral pink eye usually requires no treatment and resolves on its own after the virus runs its course. Doctors treat bacterial pink eye with antibiotic eye drops or oral medications to fight the infection.  

What types of self-care help ease the symptoms of pink eye infection?

Self-care measures you can take at home to ease the symptoms of pink eye include:

  • Placing a cold or warm compress on your eyes to reduce pain (use a clean washcloth for each eye)

  • Cleaning drainage from the eye by wiping from the inside corner to the outside of the eye

  • Washing your hands frequently and after you apply medication to avoid spreading the infection

  • Using clean towels and changing your bed linens every day while you have pink eye

  • Using over-the-counter lubricating eye drops, such as artificial tears