Conjunctivitis  is the term used to describe swelling (inflammation) of the conjunctiva — the thin, filmy membrane that covers the inside of your eyelids and the white part of your eye (known as the sclera). Often this condition is called “pink eye.”

The conjunctiva, which contains tiny blood vessels, produces mucus to keep the surface of your eye moist and protected. When the conjunctiva becomes irritated or swollen, the blood vessels become larger and more prominent, making your eye appear red. Signs of pink eye may occur in one or both eyes.

Conjunctivitis, whether bacterial or viral, can be quite contagious. Some of the most common ways to get the contagious form of pink eye include:

  • Forgetting to wash your hands often and touching your eyes;
  • Reusing tissues and towels when wiping your face and eyes; or
  • Not cleaning your contact lenses properly and using poorly fitting contact lenses or decorative contacts.

Children are usually most susceptible to getting pink eye from bacteria or viruses because they are in close contact with so many others in school or day care centers.

Signs of pink eye

  • Mild eyelid swelling
  • Redness in the white of the eye (conjunctiva) or the inner eyelid
  • Increased tearing, mucous or pus production
  • Eye irritation
  • Foreign body sensation
  • Itchiness of the eye
  • Mild blurred vision due to mucus or pus
  • Crusting of eyelashes in the morning, possibly gluing the eyes shut

There are three types of conjunctivitis:

Bacterial conjunctivitis

This is a highly contagious form of pink eye caused by bacterial infections. This type of conjunctivitis usually causes a red eye with a lot of pus.

Viral conjunctivitis

The most common cause of pink eye is the same virus that causes the common cold, and is also very contagious.

Allergic conjunctivitis

This form of conjunctivitis is caused by the body’s reaction to an allergen or irritant. It is not contagious.

Causes of Pink Eye

The most common causes of pink eye (conjunctivitis) are:

Viral infection is a common cause of conjunctivitis. This same virus that produces red and watery eyes also causes the sore throat and runny nose of the common cold. Symptoms of viral conjunctivitis can last from a few days to two weeks and then will disappear on their own. Discomfort, however, can be minimized with cool compresses applied to the eyes. Antibiotic eyedrops do not cure viral conjunctivitis.

Bacterial infections, such as Staphylococcus or Streptococcus, cause a red eye with a lot of pus. Often the eyelids are glued shut on awakening. Infrequently, bacterial infections will produce little or no discharge except for some mild crusting of the eyelashes in the morning. Antibiotic eyedrops are often prescribed because they speed the eye’s healing and reduce contagion.

Allergic conjunctivitis is not infectious or contagious. It occurs when the body is exposed to something that causes an allergic reaction, such as pollen or other environmental allergen, or pet dander. The primary symptom is itching. Other common symptoms include redness of the conjunctiva, burning, tearing, and puffy eyelids. Occasionally the conjunctiva becomes swollen. Treatment often includes applying cool compresses to the eyes and using anti-allergy eyedrops and artificial tears. Many patients find that drops that have been cooled in the refrigerator are especially comforting. Oral anti-allergy medications do not significantly improve the symptoms of ocular allergies.

Environmental irritants, such as smoke or fumes, may also cause conjunctivitis. The symptoms are burning and irritation, with no discharge or watery discharge.

Pink Eye Diagnosis

Gulf South Eye doctors can diagnose most cases of conjunctivitis with an eye examination. Tell your doctor whether your pink eye symptoms came on gradually or appeared suddenly, and whether you have been exposed to anyone else with pink eye symptoms.

In some cases, additional diagnostic tests can be helpful in diagnosing pink eye. Your Eye M.D. may collect a sample (culture) for analysis. To do this, he or she will numb your eye and swab the surface to collect a sample. The analysis of this culture will help determine if the infection is caused by a bacteria or a virus, which will guide appropriate treatment. Most often no culture is taken and the diagnosis is made in the office.

Pink Eye Treatment

How your pink eye is treated usually depends on the form of conjunctivitis you have. Your eye doctor may have taken a swab sample from your eye to help determine if your pink eye is viral or bacterial.

Viral conjunctivitis treatment

With viral conjunctivitis, symptoms can last from one to two weeks and then will typically disappear on their own. Discomfort can be minimized with cool compresses applied to the eye and cool artificial tears. This is typically the only treatment that is necessary. Severe cases can benefit from anti-inflammatory drops that should only be prescribed by an ophthalmologist.

Bacterial conjunctivitis treatment

For bacterial conjunctivitis, your doctor will typically prescribe antibiotic eye drops to treat the infection. Occasionally it is difficult to distinguish bacterial from viral conjunctivitis, and in this case drops will likely be prescribed.

Allergic conjunctivitis treatment

For allergic conjunctivitis, treatment often includes applying cool compresses to the eyes and using allergy eye drops and artificial tears that have been cooled in the refrigerator.