Conjunctivitis, better known as pink eye, is one of the most common eye infections. It’s highly contagious but also easily treatable. It’s common among babies and children, and it can quickly spread through schools and other places where people are in close contact.

What Is Pink Eye?

A thin layer of tissue called the conjunctiva lines the eyelid and the eye. When this tissue becomes irritated and inflamed, the eye can turn pink and watery. This inflammation is called conjunctivitis, or pink eye. Pink eye usually makes the eyes feel sensitive, itchy, and dry. For some people, however, the only symptom is a pink eye.

Most cases of conjunctivitis are due to a bacterial or viral infection irritating the eye. When an infection is the culprit, pink eye can spread through contact. It can be contracted through hugging, accidentally touching someone’s eye, or touching someone’s hand after they have rubbed their eye.

Pink eye is rarely serious, and it doesn’t usually affect your vision. But when it develops in newborns, it can cause serious complications. It may also be a sign of a serious underlying infection, such as gonorrhea or chlamydia.

Types of Pink Eye

Pink eye is irritation of the conjunctiva. This irritation is usually caused by an infection. The most common types of pink eye include:

  • Bacterial pink eye: This type of pink eye is from a bacterial infection, such as staph or strep. Bacterial pink eye is contagious. Sometimes sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia and gonorrhea infect the eye, causing pink eye. Pink eye from STIs is most common in newborns, who contract the infection from their mothers as they pass through the birth canal.
  • Viral pink eye: Viral pink eye is caused by viruses such as adenovirus. Viral infections of the eye are highly contagious.
  • Allergic pink eye: Sometimes an allergic reaction, especially to something in the eye, can irritate the conjunctiva. Makeup, dust, and dander are common culprits.
  • Irritant conjunctivitis: When something physically irritates the eye, such as en eyelash or piece of dirt stuck under the eyelid, conjunctivitis may develop. Sometimes rubbing the eye makes symptoms worse.

In infants and newborns, pink eye is sometimes due to a blocked tear duct. Blocked tear ducts usually resolve on their own within the first 12 months of life. If a baby has green discharge from the eye, it may be because the tear duct is blocked. Try applying a warm compress to the eye several times each day.

Symptoms and Causes

People with pink eye may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Burning, itching, or pain in the eye.
  • Sensitivity to light.
  • Watery eyes, especially in bright light.
  • A gritty sensation in the eye, or the feeling that something is stuck in the eye.
  • Redness in the eye.
  • Discharge from the eye. Sometimes this discharge is sticky, and makes it hard to open the eyes in the morning.

Prevention and Risks

Viral and bacterial pink eye usually develop after exposure to an infection. Anyone can contract such an infection, but close contact with other people — especially if you don’t regularly wash your hands — is a major risk factor. Some other risk factors for pink eye include:

  • Getting something stuck in the eye.
  • Splashing chemicals or makeup in the eye.
  • A blocked tear duct, especially in newborns.
  • Frequently rubbing or picking at the eyes.
  • Sharing makeup, contacts, or other products that can spread eye infections.

To reduce the risk of developing or spreading pink eye:

  • Stay home from work or school if you have pink eye or if you or your child have signs of an eye infection.
  • Don’t touch your eyes. If you must touch them, wash your hands immediately after.
  • Practice frequent hand washing, especially if you frequently shake hands with people or are in close contact with others.
  • Frequently change pillow cases.
  • Don’t reuse washcloths or other products that come into contact with eyes.
  • Don’t share makeup or other eye products.
  • Keep contacts clean and stored in a sterile solution.
  • Don’t use eye care products past the expiration date.
  • See a doctor for eye health symptoms such as swelling, pain, or a blocked tear duct.
  • Apply a warm compress to the eye several times each day if you have a stye or blocked tear duct.

Diagnosis and Tests

A doctor can usually diagnose pink eye based on symptoms alone. If it’s unclear whether the infection is due to pink eye or something else, a doctor may take a sample of discharge from the eye.

Some other conditions may be mistaken for pink eye. It’s important to monitor symptoms and see a doctor, not self-diagnose. Some other culprits in eye redness and pain include:

  • Styes and chalazia: A stye is an infection in a hair follicle that causes a small, painful lump at the base of the eyelashes. A chalazion is a clogged oil gland. Rubbing because of a stye or chalazion can introduce bacteria into the eye and cause pink eye.
  • Blepharitis: Blepharitis is eyelid inflammation that can cause the eyelids to swell and peel. It usually goes away on its own. In some people, it becomes a chronic medical condition.
  • Clogged tear duct: When a tear duct is blocked, it can cause the eye to swell and become painful. Sometimes this leads to pink eye, but it’s important to treat the underlying cause.
  • Dry eye: Dry eyes can turn red and burn, but the pain is not due to an infection. Spending time in the wind and sun, long periods staring at a computer, and contact lens use are all risk factors for chronic dry eyes. Eye drops usually help.

Treatment, Procedures, and Medication

Pink eye doesn’t always require medical treatment. If symptoms are mild, simply apply cold or hot compresses and stay home from work or school. The symptoms usually get better on their own in a few days.

See a doctor for pink eye if:

  • Symptoms develop in a baby under 4 months old.
  • There are other symptoms, such as a fever.
  • The eyes are very red.
  • You have intense light sensitivity and can’t open your eyes.
  • Symptoms are getting worse.
  • You have blurred vision.
  • You have a weakened immune system due to HIV/AIDS, chemotherapy, diabetes, or an autoimmune disease.

Antibiotic eye drops can quickly treat bacterial conjunctivitis. When symptoms are viral, allergic, or due to eye irritation, a doctor may prescribe eye drops to help with the pain or recommend allergy medication. If a tear duct is blocked, the doctor may advise applying warm compresses and coming back in a few weeks to see if symptoms are better.

Healthy Lifestyle Tips

Taking care of your eyes can reduce the risk of pink eye and other sources of eye pain. Try these strategies:

  • Wear clean contacts. If your eyes are irritated, switch to eyeglasses until the pain gets better.
  • Avoid people with eye infections, and wash your hands after coming into contact with them.
  • Throw away expired makeup and other eye products.
  • Teach children about the importance of frequent hand washing, and encourage them not to touch other people’s faces or eyes.

Food and Nutrition-Based Approaches to Prevention and Management

There’s no evidence that food or nutritional supplements can prevent or treat eye infections, including conjunctivitis. A varied, healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help keep the body healthy enough to fight off minor infections.

Some foods that may be especially good for eye health include:

  • Foods containing lutein and zeaxanthin. Eggs and dark leafy green vegetables are rich in these eye-friendly nutrients.
  • Vitamin C-rich foods, such as citrus fruits.
  • Foods containing vitamin E, such as nuts, fortified cereals, and sweet potatoes.
  • Essential fatty acids, which are abundant in most fish and eggs.
  • Foods high in zinc, such as legumes, nuts, and poultry.

What Type of Doctor to See

Your primary care provider may be able to diagnose and treat conjunctivitis. Newborns and children should see a pediatrician since medication dosing and treatment can vary between children and adults. An optometrist may also be able to treat conjunctivitis. However, if the infection is severe or the first line of treatment has failed, an ophthalmologist may be the best bet. Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who specialize in eye health.

Conclusion

Eye pain can be scary, sparking fears of blindness and permanently swollen eyes. Pink eye is usually a minor condition that goes away on its own, so there’s no need to panic. Consult with a doctor or optometrist, and treat the condition exactly as recommended. Most people feel better in less than a week, and many notice that symptoms begin to subside within a day of beginning treatment.