Watery eyes and redness happen all the time. Maybe there’s more pollen in the air, a change in weather or you need to give your house a thorough dusting, or perhaps you’re just tired and have been staring at the computer screen for too long. Sometimes, though, your eye itches and a thick gooey discharge feels like it’s gluing your eye shut. It’s not the dust bunnies anymore: it’s pink eye.

What is pink eye?

Conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye, is the inflammation of the mucous membrane that covers the eye and lines the eyelids. It can be caused by a bacterial infection, viral infection or irritation from allergens. It is important to know that eye redness is often, but not always, a symptom of conjunctivitis.

“Varying degrees of pink or red appear based on varying degrees of inflammation,” said Cindy Weston, DNP, RN, FNP-BC, assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing. “So pink eye may not always appear pink, but it represents an inflammatory process often related to infection.”

These different causes of the condition can vary in severity, so it is best to take a cautious approach when dealing with it and—although not all red or irritated eyes are pink eye—not dismiss your symptoms. Especially if you experience a thick discharge from your eyes, particularly in the morning, you most likely have pink eye.

“Pink eye is versatile,” Weston said. “If you have pink eye, go to a health care provider to prevent any potential spreading.”

Different types of pink eye

The different causes of pink eye can affect the way you treat the condition. For all, the symptoms usually include the following:

  • Eye redness
  • Discharge (color and thickness may vary depending on cause of inflammation)
  • Itchy, irritated, and/or burning eyes
  • Crusting of the eyelids or lashes
  • Gritty feeling in the eye
  • Increased sensitivity to light

A viral case of pink eye will typically be self-limiting, meaning that it will run its course with minimal-to-no treatment prescribed—except possibly eye drops to ease the irritation. These cases can present with symptoms of a cold or flu and watery discharge. Redness and irritation may be present in one eye before spreading to the other eye within a few days.

Bacterial conjunctivitis might also occur in both eyes, but can be distinguished from viral causes because bacterial pink eye is typically associated with a yellow-green discharge of pus from the eyes. It may occur at the same time as an ear infection. Bacterial pink eye is typically treated with antibiotic drops or ointment applied along the inside of your eyelid. Patients are no longer contagious after 24 hours of treatment and can resume normal activities then or at the health care provider’s discretion.

A study showed that bacterial conjunctivitis is a leading cause of children being absent from daycare or school, and parents should try to catch it early before classmates get sick. “This should be seen and treated by a health care provider quickly,” Weston said. “If there is a thick goopy discharge, that is an automatic sign to get treatment before a chance of spreading.”

Allergic or irritant conjunctivitis is non-contagious and caused by environmental factors, such as dust mites, animal dander, pollen or contact lenses. The discharge will be clear and may present with other allergy symptoms, such as sneezing and nasal drainage. This can be treated with antihistamines, lubricating eye drops, cool eye compresses and avoiding the allergen.

How to prevent pink eye

The best way to deter pink eye, like many other common childhood conditions, is through primary prevention techniques, such as washing hands, covering coughs and sneezes and keeping a clean environment.

“Avoid touching or rubbing the eyes with your hands,” Weston said. “Don’t share towels or washcloths and be sure to wipe down household surfaces with disinfectant.” Keep disinfectant present, but don’t use it as a substitute for washing your hands.

If you get pink eye anyway, don’t wear eye make-up or contact lenses until symptoms resolve.  If you’ve had viral or bacterial pink eye, toss these items—and anything else that may have touched your eye while you were sick—and start fresh with new ones.

“Pink eye is very common,” Weston said. “But by practicing proper hygiene habits, you are increasing your odds of avoiding it.”

— Dominic Hernandez

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