When patients ask me if they have pink eye, I am usually left a little confused. If their eye is now pink, then yes, they have “pink eye”. And if your foot was sore, you would have “sore foot”. But just as a host of things could cause your foot to be sore (ever step on a sharp object?), so too causes of “pink eye” can vary.
Most of the time, pink eye refers to conjunctivitis, which is inflammation of the thin clear covering of the white of the eye. Conjunctivitis usually means the entire conjunctiva is red, not just a few sections of the eyeball. There are many causes of conjunctivitis.
Let’s review the main players:
Viral Conjunctivitis: This tends to be contagious and is usually caused by the same viruses that are responsible for the common cold. It can be spread by sneezing, coughing, and touch. You probably won’t recall how you got it—touching a door knob, pushing a shopping cart, using a pen at the sign in desk—all of these could be responsible. Often, this will clear up on its own in a few days and does not require treatment. Use of an antibiotic does not hasten your recovery though many primary care providers prescribe them just to be safe. The white of your eye appears pink and you may experience eye watering, itching, and light sensitivity. Applying a cold wet washcloth to your eyes several times daily will help relieve symptoms. Relief should occur within several days.
Bacterial Conjunctivitis: Bacterial infections of the eye can be more severe than their viral counterparts. These infections usually occur through direct contact. Symptoms involve a yellow or greenish discharge that builds up in the corner of your eyes, sometimes causing the eyelids to stick together upon awakening. This is best treated with an antibiotic which will shorten the duration of symptoms.
Allergic Conjunctivitis: This one can be the easiest to diagnose. As a general rule, if your eyes are itching, you have allergies. Patients allergic to dust or pet dander may suffer year round. Pollen and plant matter (like mold) can be more seasonal. The white of your eye appears pink and can the eyes may water, burn and itch. This conjunctivitis is not contagious. Over the counter allergy drops can bring relief. We also have prescription drops that require dosing of only once per day and can be more effective.
Just as many things cause “sore foot”, not all “pink eye” is conjunctivitis. Contact lens wearers can have corneal ulcers that require emergent care. If you are in doubt about what’s causing your red eye or if your symptoms are worsening, do not hesitate to see your eye M.D. I tell my office staff that when the phone rings, be sure to answer it—Job Security is on the other end of the line. We would rather be safe with routine problems than sorry with permanent damage.