Pink Eye: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Pink eye, medically known as conjunctivitis, is an irritation of the thin, normally transparent lining (called the conjunctiva) that covers the inner surface of the eyelids and the outer surface of the sclera (white portion of the eye). Pink eye is quite common to people of all ages and is highly contagious, hence, sufficient knowledge and preventative measures are vital in managing this condition. 

This article provides valuable insights into the diverse causes and the range of treatments available, offering helpful guidance to those dealing with or seeking to prevent pink eye. Please read on.

What Does the First Stage of Pink Eye Look Like?

In cases of conjunctivitis, the affected eye exhibits a light pink to reddish hue in the white part, while the eyelids appear swollen or droopy. Also, there might be fluid discharge from the infected eye, leading to crusting on the eyelashes and eyelids.

Some people might mistake pink eye for a stye, but distinguishing the two is relatively straightforward. A stye is a painful, red bump that develops either on or inside your eyelid, typically near the edge of your eyelashes. 

On the other hand, pink eye is an inflammation of the inner surface of your eyelid and the outer coating of your eye. Unlike a stye, pink eye does not cause any bumps on your eyelid or around your eye.

What Are the Types of Pink Eye?

Pink eye or conjunctivitis manifests in three primary types: viral, bacterial, and allergic.

  • Viral Conjunctivitis

This is the most common type of pink eye and is caused by viruses such as those responsible for the common cold or flu infections. Studies indicate that viral conjunctivitis accounts for up to 80% of all cases. It is highly contagious and easily spreads from person to person.

  • Bacterial Conjunctivitis 

This type of conjunctivitis results from a bacterial infection, like those coming from Staphylococcus aureus, Haemophilus influenzae, Streptococcus pneumonia, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Similar to viral conjunctivitis, it is contagious and can easily transmit from one person to another.

  • Allergic Conjunctivitis

Unlike viral and bacterial conjunctivitis, allergic pink eye is not contagious. It occurs due to an allergic reaction to environmental factors like pollen, dust, animal dander, and other allergens.

What Is Pink Eye Caused By?

Aside from viruses, bacteria, and allergens, here are several other factors contributing to the development of pink eye:

  • Irritants like shampoos, cosmetics, contaminated contact lenses, smoke, or pool chlorine
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • Foreign objects entering the eye, such as fallout lashes, specks of wood, glass, dirt, or sand
  • Blocked tear ducts in babies
  • Autoimmune conditions 

What Are the Symptoms of Pink Eye?

Symptoms of pink eye, or conjunctivitis, encompass the following:

  • Redness in the white of the eye or inner eyelid
  • Excessive tearing
  • Thick yellow discharge that forms crusts on the eyelashes, especially upon waking from sleep
  • Green or white discharge coming from the eye
  • A feeling of grittiness in one or both eyes
  • Itchy eyes, particularly in cases of pink eye caused by allergies
  • Burning sensation in the eyes, especially in pink eye resulting from exposure to chemicals and irritants
  • Blurred vision
  • Heightened sensitivity to light
  • Swelling of the eyelids

What Gets Rid of Pink Eye Fast?

As per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seeking medical attention in cases of conjunctivitis (pink eye) is essential at times, although it may not always be necessary. To alleviate inflammation and dryness associated with conjunctivitis, using cold compresses and non-prescription artificial tears can be helpful. These products are available over the counter. 

In addition, it’s crucial to refrain from wearing contact lenses until your eye doctor advises you to resume using them. If you didn’t require medical consultation, it’s advisable to avoid wearing contacts until the symptoms of pink eye have completely subsided. 

If the irritation is due to allergic conjunctivitis, your healthcare provider might prescribe various types of eye drops designed for allergy sufferers. These drops can include medications that manage allergic reactions, such as antihistamines and mast cell stabilizers. Alternatively, your provider might suggest medications to control inflammation, such as decongestants, steroids, and anti-inflammatory drops.

Nonprescription versions of these medications could also be effective. It’s essential to consult your provider to determine the most suitable option for your situation.

Moreover, you can minimize the intensity of your allergic conjunctivitis symptoms by avoiding the triggers of your allergies.

When Should I Go to the Doctor for Pink Eye?

It is important to seek medical attention from a healthcare provider if you have conjunctivitis while experiencing any of the following symptoms:

  • Intense redness in the eye(s)
  • Pain in the eye(s)
  • Symptoms that worsen or do not improve, including a bacterial pink eye that shows no improvement after 24 hours of antibiotic use
  • Sensitivity to light or blurred vision that persists even after wiping discharge from the eye(s)
  • A weakened immune system due to conditions like HIV infection, cancer treatment, or other medical conditions or treatments

More importantly, newborns displaying symptoms of conjunctivitis should be promptly examined by a doctor. Early medical intervention is essential in these cases.

How Can I Prevent Conjunctivitis?

To avoid contracting or spreading conjunctivitis, take the following precautions:

  • Wash your hands frequently during the day, especially before and after touching your eyes.
  • Avoid rubbing your eyes.
  • Do not share washcloths, pillows, towels, and make-up items with
  • others.
  • Wash your bedding and towels frequently.   
  • If you have a case of bacterial or viral conjunctivitis, discard and replace your current make-up, mascara, and eyeliner.
  • If you wear contact lenses, clean and disinfect them as directed.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before applying and removing your lenses.
  • Replace your contact lenses frequently.
  • Don’t share your contact lenses with others. 
  • Wear protective goggles when working with or near chemicals. 
  • Avoid swimming in non-chlorinated pools or stagnant lakes or ponds.

Will Pink Eye Go Away on Its Own?

Yes. Depending on the type of conjunctivitis, as well as the remedy taken, pink eye typically resolves on its own. 

Viral pink eye goes away on its own within 1-2 weeks. Bacterial pink eye, on one hand, can clear up on its own within 10 days in mild cases. If antibiotics are prescribed, symptoms should start improving within 24 hours. 

For allergic conjunctivitis, symptoms usually subside within 24 hours provided that the affected person’s surroundings are cleared from the triggering allergen. Antihistamines also greatly contribute to the fast recovery from this condition. 

Key Takeaway

Conjunctivitis, while common, is treatable and manageable. Proper hygiene, awareness, and timely medical intervention can prevent complications and limit their spread. Individuals should adopt preventive measures and seek prompt medical attention if exposed to chemicals or if symptoms persist.