Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is an infection of the outside of the eye and is associated with the characteristic symptoms of swelling, itching, burning and crusting of the eye lashes when awakening from sleep. The symptoms are caused by an infection of the conjunctiva of the eye.
The conjunctiva is a thin membrane that covers the white area of the eye or sclera. During a Pink Eye infection this conjunctiva becomes infected and inflamed causing the symptoms and eye drainage. During sleep this eye drainage clumps around the eye lashes making opening the eye in the morning almost impossible without first cleaning the lashes.
Pink eye is caused by many of the same bacteria and viruses that are responsible for the common cold and other common infections such as ear infections, sinus infections and sore throats. Pink eye can also be caused by allergies.
This type of reaction happens more frequently with children and adults who have problems with allergies to pet dander, hay fever and grass and ragweed pollen.
There are also times when Pink eye can be caused by a substance in the environment that irritates the eyes such as chlorine, soaps, smoke and fumes. During times when Pink eye is caused by allergies or a chemical substance the irritation is more common in both eyes and the discharge from the eye is usually clear and watery.
This condition is easily spread from person to person by touching an infected person’s hand after they have touched the infected eye, or sharing towels, makeup or through coughing or sneezing if a person with a cold is present.
This Pink eye or conjunctivitis can be caused by either bacteria or viruses. The infection most commonly starts in one eye but can easily be spread to the other eye by the infected person themselves.
More rarely conjunctivitis can be seen in children with Kawasaki’s disease and certain other inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
When Pink eye is associated with a bacterial or viral infection it appears a couple of days after contact with the infected person or an object that was contaminated with the virus.
When the infection is caused by bacteria the condition is treated using antibiotics. Physicians may prescribe ointment or eye drops that are antibiotics but they don’t often prescribe a more systemic antibiotic that is taken by mouth.
This is because the infection is usually localized to the eye and the antibiotics are most effective when placed in the area of the infection.
Parents of infants often find that ointment is easier to administer to babies than are eye drops.
If the Pink eye is caused by a viral infection antibiotics will not be effective against the germ. In this case the treatment often consists of antihistamines to keep the eyes dry and help the itching and anti inflammatory medications to help the swelling in the eye. Patients often find that cold compresses are helpful to ease the discomfort.
Antibiotics are often used to help prevent a secondary infection in the eye as well. Although antibiotics aren’t effective against a viral eye infection they are helpful if a secondary bacterial infection set up shop with the virus.
Viral pink eye infections usually last from about seven to 10 days. Viral conjunctivitis tends to affect one eye while a bacterial or allergic cause will usually affect both eyes.
MayoClinic: Pink eye
American Optometric Association: Conjunctivitis