Conjunctivitis, or pink eye, is one of the most common and treatable eye infections occurring in children and adults. Richard Samuel, MD, medical director for Adventist HealthCare Urgent Care, answers questions about this condition that frequently leads to visits to urgent care centers and pediatrician offices.

Q: What is pink eye?

Dr. Samuel: Pink eye is a mild infection occurring when the tissue lining around your eyelids becomes swollen or inflamed. The inflammation causes the blood vessels in your eye to enlarge and appear pink. The condition is usually caused by these three factors:

  • Viruses: Pink eye caused by viruses is the most common among adults and frequently arises during summer. It occurs when viruses, such as the common cold, come into direct contact with your eye.
  • Bacteria: Pink eye caused by bacteria is responsible for 50 to 75 percent of cases in children. This type of pink eye occurs when staph or strep bacteria infect your eye from hand-to-eye contact or through direct contact with an infected object. We see this form of pink eye often in children because of poor hand washing and the sharing of toys and other items. It can also occur when contaminated facial makeup products are used or if an insect gets stuck in the eye.
  • Allergens and Irritants: Pink eye can also be caused by environmental factors and other irritants. Using extended-wear contact lenses for too long or harsh chemicals, like smoke, can cause pink eye. Doctors’ offices can see a spike in pink eye infections during the spring and summer because of the increase in airborne allergens.

Q: What are common pink eye symptoms?

Dr. Samuel: Most people with pink eye are contagious as soon as they begin showing symptoms. The most common symptom is redness or swelling in the whites of the eye or inside the eyelid. Other common pink eye symptoms you may experience in one or both of your eyes are:

  • An uncomfortable, gritty feeling
  • Itching and burning
  • Excessive tearing
  • Discharge
  • Light sensitivity

Q: Who is at high risk of getting pink eye?

Dr. Samuel: Children are at higher risk of getting and spreading pink eye because they are more likely to touch their eyes and others with unclean hands. Adults who have close contact with children at home or at work may also be at risk. Also, newborns can develop pink eye if they have a blocked tear duct or if their mother gave birth with an untreated sexually transmitted infection affecting her birth canal. Infants with pink eye should get treatment as soon as possible to avoid severe long-term effects, such as permanent vision loss.

Q: How do you prevent getting pink eye?

Dr. Samuel: Pink eye is highly contagious and the best way to prevent infection is to limit close contact with others who have the condition and to practice good hand hygiene. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water and avoid touching your eyes to help prevent the spread to others. Also, do not share any facial makeup, eye glasses or other personal belongings that have touched your face with others. Also, if you wear contact lenses, wear your glasses to avoid further irritation or spreading the infection to your other eye.

Q: How is pink eye treated?

Dr. Samuel:  Pink eye caused by viruses is usually not treated with medication and may take up to one to three weeks to heal. Other types of pink eye will often improve after a course of antibiotics or after removing the irritant. To avoid reinfection, throw out any contaminated facial cosmetics, old contact lenses or anything else you’ve used on or near your eyes. To help ease your symptoms, use a warm compress over your eye and keep your eyes moisturized with eye drops or a humidifier. If you or your child develops symptoms, see your pediatrician, primary care physician or visit an urgent care center.

Sources: National Institutes of Health Centers for Disease Control, American Optometric Association

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