Facts About "Pink Eye"

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Medical Editor: Barbara K. Hecht, PhD

Conjunctivitis, known as "pink eye", is an inflammation of the thin, transparent membrane covering the inner eyelid and the white part of the eye known as the conjunctiva. Symptoms of this condition can include:

Conjunctivitis may begin in one eye but often spreads to involve both eyes.

The term pink eye is most commonly used to refer to the infectious (viral or bacterial) type of conjunctivitis, but conjunctivitis may also result from allergic reactions or from chemical irritants such as air pollution, smoke, or noxious fumes. Rarely, underlying chronic medical conditions including systemic lupus erythematosus or rheumatoid arthritis can cause a persistent conjunctivitis. The infectious form of conjunctivitis is very common in children and is highly contagious.

Children and adults who develop infectious pink eye should see a doctor to determine whether antibiotic treatment is necessary. Most cases of infectious pink eye are caused by viruses and will not respond to antibiotic treatment. In these instances, the discharge from the eye is clear and watery and symptoms of a cold may be present. Viral pink eye infections usually last from about seven to ten days.

Bacterial pink eye generally results in a large amount of discharge that is green to yellow in color. This discharge can accumulate at night and make opening the eye difficult in the morning. Bacterial pink eye requires treatment with antibiotic eye drops to help the body remove the bacterial infection, and sometimes oral antibiotics are also given if the infection is causing symptoms in other parts of the body. Antibiotic administration will generally cure the infection in three to five days. Application of warm washcloths to the eye area is effective in removing discharge.

Pink eye is spread through direct contact with infected persons. To reduce the chance of spreading infectious pink eye, those affected should avoid touching the eye area and wash their hands frequently, particularly before applying medications to the eye area. Sharing of towels, washcloths, cosmetics, or eye drops can also spread the infection.

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