Conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, is an inflammation of the conjunctiva. The conjunctiva is the clear membrane that covers the white part of the eye and the inner surface of the eyelid. When the conjunctiva becomes inflamed, it becomes more visible, resulting in the white section of the eye seeming reddish or pink.

What Causes Pink Eye (conjunctivitis)? 

The most common type of pink eye is viral conjunctivitis. It is usually caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold. Other causes include bacteria, allergies, and chemical irritants. Pink eye caused by bacteria and viruses can spread easily from person to person, but it isn’t a serious health risk if diagnosed and treated quickly.

Sexually transmitted diseases (STD) like Gonorrhea and Chlamydia can also cause conjunctivitis. Gonorrhea can lead to a very rare but severe type of conjunctivitis. If you don’t get treatment, it can lead to blindness.

Types of Pink Eye 

There are several different types of conjunctivitis, each with different causes. Viral conjunctivitis is usually caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold. It is very contagious and is often passed through coughing and sneezing. It can also be spread by touching a contaminated surface and then rubbing the eyes.

Bacterial conjunctivitis is most often caused by bacteria such as staphylococcus (staph infections) and streptococcus (strep). Bacterial conjunctivitis is less contagious than viral pink eye, but it can still be passed on through contact with the eye or nose of an infected person.

Allergic conjunctivitis occurs when the eye comes into contact with pollen, animal dander, or mold spores. It is not contagious to others.

Am I At Risk? 

You may be at greater risk for conjunctivitis if you:

  • Have a weakened immune system from a chronic illness or are taking immunosuppressive medications
  • Are exposed to chemicals or other irritants at work
  • Wear contact lenses
  • Have had recent eye surgery
  • Have direct contact with someone who has conjunctivitis

One of the first questions people ask when they develop pink eye is whether or not it is contagious. Bacterial and viral conjunctivitis are highly contagious, while allergic conjunctivitis is not.

If you have bacterial or viral conjunctivitis, you can spread the infection to others by touching or sharing items such as towels, pillowcases, makeup, or contact lenses. It is also possible to spread these types of conjunctivitis through the air, particularly if you sneeze or cough while you have the infection.

Incubation Period 

For viral conjunctivitis, the incubation period is usually one to three days. For bacterial pink eye, it is often between 24 and 48 hours. Allergic pink eye may develop more gradually over several days.

Symptoms 

Pink eye symptoms vary depending on the type. Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis often cause the following symptoms:

  • Redness in one or both eyes
  • Itching or burning in the eyes
  • Watery discharge from the eyes that may crust over during the day
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Swollen lymph nodes near the ear

Bacterial conjunctivitis may also cause:

  • Eye pain 
  • Ear infections
  • Yellow or green thick sticky discharge from the eye
  • Red and swollen eyelids

Allergic conjunctivitis often causes:

  • Itchy eyes
  • Watery or white, stringy mucus discharge
  • Swollen eyelids

Treatment Options 

The type of conjunctivitis determines the best course of treatment. Viral and bacterial pink eye will often resolve on their own or can be treated with over-the-counter remedies. However, if symptoms persist or worsen, you should see a doctor.

Allergic pink eye is not contagious and can usually be treated with over-the-counter medicines. If symptoms are severe, you may need to see an allergist for help in managing your allergies.

Viral 

There is no specific treatment for viral conjunctivitis. A viral infection will usually go away in seven to fourteen days. In the meantime, you can try the following things to help relieve symptoms:

  • Apply a warm, wet cloth to the eyes several times a day
  • Gently clean the eye with a cotton ball soaked in warm water
  • Use artificial tears to lubricate dry eyes
  • Do not wear contact lenses until the infection has cleared up

Bacterial 

Bacterial conjunctivitis can be treated with over-the-counter remedies, however, if your symptoms worsen and you feel pain in your eye, you should see a doctor. You will most likely be treated with oral antibiotics, antibiotic drops, or ointments. It is important to finish the entire course of antibiotics even if symptoms go away. Stopping too soon can cause the bacterial infection to come back.

Irritants/Chemical 

For pink eye caused by an irritant, use water to wash the eye continuously for 5 minutes. Your eye should begin to improve in a few hours. If your conjunctivitis was caused by acid or alkaline material such as bleach or chlorine, immediately rinse the eyes with lots of water and call your doctor right away.

Allergies 

For allergic pink eye, over-the-counter medicines such as antihistamines or mast cell stabilizers (eye drops specifically for allergies) can be used to ease symptoms. If these are ineffective, your doctor can prescribe stronger medications like corticosteroids. Allergic conjunctivitis can also be treated with immunotherapy, which helps reduce the immune system’s sensitivity to the particular allergy.

Eye Care

Caring for your eyes when you have conjunctivitis is essential to prevent the spread of infection and to speed up healing.

To help ease symptoms and prevent the spread of infection:

  • Do not touch or rub your eyes
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • Avoid sharing towels, pillowcases, or other items that may have come into contact with your eyes
  • Do not wear contact lenses until the infection has cleared up
  • Throw away any disposable contact lenses that you were wearing during the infection
  • If you wear glasses, clean them regularly with hot soapy water

Pink Eye in Newborns 

If your baby has pink eye, it is important to see a doctor. Newborns are especially vulnerable to bacteria and viruses because their immune system is not yet fully developed. Bacterial conjunctivitis can lead to serious complications such as blindness if it is not treated right away.

Conjunctivitis can also be caused by irritation from medicines given at birth, a blocked tear duct, or infection with a virus or bacteria passed from the mother to her baby during childbirth. 

Prevention and Treatments For Newborns 

The best way to prevent pink eye in newborns is to practice good hand hygiene. Washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer before touching your baby can help to reduce the risk of infection. Many states now have laws that require hospital staff to administer drops or ointment to a newborn’s eyes within 2-3 hours of birth to avoid neonatal conjunctivitis.

Pink eye caused by a blocked tear duct usually goes away within a few weeks. However, if the tearing persists or pus or discharge is coming from the eye, your baby may need antibiotics.  

Frequently Asked Questions

Will pink eye affect my vision?

Though pink eye can be irritating, it rarely affects your vision. At times pink eye can cause inflammation in the cornea that can cause blurred vision.

When is it okay to return to work or school with pink eye?

With bacterial pink eye, you can usually return to work or school 24 hours after taking antibiotics. With viral pink eye, the contagious period may last as long as the symptoms do. Make sure to check with your doctor and ask for their recommendation when it’s okay to return to public places. 

Can I tell what type of pink eye I have?

In terms of symptoms, though, it’s nearly impossible to know if you have viral or bacterial conjunctivitis without visiting your doctor. All three main types of conjunctivitis share similar symptoms.

Can pink eye clear up on its own?

Yes. In most cases, conjunctivitis will clear up in one to two weeks. Mild cases usually do not need antibiotics.

Call Us Today

Overall, conjunctivitis is a very treatable condition. By following the proper care instructions and getting medical advice when necessary, you can help speed up the healing process and prevent the spread of infection. If you’re searching online for pink eye Denver, Call Youth Dental and Vision at (303) 953-8801 to book an appointment with our optometrists at any one of our 4 locations. We offer vision appointments at our two locations in Denver: Grove St and Hampden Ave, as well as in Aurora and Thornton. For more information on our locations or the services we offer, email [email protected].