Conjunctivitis, or pinkeye as it is popularly called (because of the dilation and reddening of the blood vessels in the whites of the eyes), is an infection or inflammation that affects the conjunctiva, the thin transparent lubricating membrane that lines the eyeballs and inner eyelids. One or both eyes may be affected.
Pinkeye can be triggered by an infection, an allergic reaction, or exposure to an irritant. The conjunctiva becomes red and inflamed, and this redness may be combined with a discharge from the eye. If the infection is bacterial, a yellow or white discharge typically occurs. If the whites of both eyes are red, and there is tearing but little or no discharge, this is more symptomatic of a viral infection.
Symptoms of Pinkeye
- Pink or reddish tinge to the white(s) of the eye(s)
- Light sensitivity
- Oozing, pus-like discharge (bacterial conjunctivitis) or profuse tearing with slight discharge (viral conjunctivitis)
- Upon awakening, eyelids may be crusted over
- Swollen eyelids
- Blurry vision
- Sandy or gritty sensation upon blinking, eye pain
- Itching and tearing (allergic conjunctivitis)
What Causes Pinkeye?
Conjunctivitis usually results from either a bacterial or viral infection, and either type of infection is highly contagious. Children who have conjunctivitis in one eye frequently spread it to the other eye with their fingers. The infection also can be easily passed from one person to another by direct contact (for example, shaking hands with an infected person and then touching your face) or by sharing towels or washcloths that have been used to wipe infected eyes. Improperly cleaned contact lenses, or lenses cleaned with expired solutions, can also be the cause of infections.
Allergies to cosmetics or contact lens solutions, or exposure to pollen, chemical fumes, or other irritants, may also cause conjunctivitis. In these cases the condition is not contagious.
What If You Do Nothing?
Viral conjunctivitis is usually not a serious eye ailment and typically clears up in a week, though symptoms can be bothersome for adults and children alike. Bacterial conjunctivitis is more serious than the viral form and may require treatment by a doctor. Allergic conjunctivitis can persist until the source of the reaction has been identified and dealt with.
Some childhood diseases—measles, German measles (rubella), and chicken pox—can also cause conjunctivitis.
Home Remedies for Pinkeye
The following measures are usually effective for soothing conjunctivitis.
- Apply a compress. For bacterial or viral conjunctivitis, dip a clean washcloth in warm water, wring it out, and place it over the eyes for five minutes. Once it cools, apply another warm one. Repeat two or three times throughout the day.
- If the cause is allergic, applying cool compresses on the eyes can bring relief. Over-the-counter antihistamines may also help reduce redness and itching.
- Keep pinkeye from spreading. When the cause is viral or bacterial, wash and wipe away any discharge with tissue and avoid touching or rubbing the infected eye(s). If only one eye is infected, these steps will keep the infection from spreading to the other eye and also help prevent other people from becoming infected. Also, don’t use contact lenses or eye makeup, which can spread the infection to the other eye
- Wear glasses instead of contact lenses. Wearing contact lenses may further aggravate the infected eye.
- Practice good hygiene. Make it a habit to wash your hands frequently with soap and water. This is especially important if you are in contact with a child who has conjunctivitis.
- Try to avoid touching or rubbing your eyes. This can easily transmit an infection. Most of us touch our eyes without thinking, so not touching them requires a deliberate effort.
- Don’t share. Don’t share towels, washcloths, glasses or eye makeup with others. If you have pinkeye, be sure to keep your washcloths and towels separate from those used by anyone living with you—and launder your towels separately as well.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
Consult your doctor if any discharge is severe, if redness becomes noticeably worse, if your eye is very painful, or if your vision is persistently blurred. These indicate a bacterial infection or some other complication that should be medically treated. Also call your doctor if a chemical irritant has caused a severe reaction that is not relieved by washing the eye with water.
What Your Doctor Will Do
A thorough examination is often sufficient to determine the cause of the conjunctivitis, though swab samples may also be taken and cultured to pinpoint the type of bacterial infection that is present. Antibiotic ointment or eyedrops will clear up most bacterial infections.
For persistent or severe cases of allergic conjunctivitis, a trial course of oral antihistamines and/or appropriate eyedrops may be prescribed.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media