excerpt from the book Taking
Care of Your Eyes,
one time or another, nearly everyone has had pink eye, or
conjunctivitis (kun-junk-tih-VI-tis). In fact, this is one
of the more common reasons people go to an eye doctor.
means inflammation of the conjunctiva (kon-junk-TI-vuh). The
conjunctiva is the thin membrane that covers the white part
of the eye (sclera) and the undersurface of the eyelids. "Inflammation"
means that this membrane is red, irritated, or swollen.
is not a disease; it is simply a reaction to something that
is irritating the eye. There are many conditions that can
result in a reddened eye. Usually, it means a viral or bacterial
infection, but conjunctivitis can also be caused by allergy,
irritants such as air ollution, smoke or noxious fumes, or
minor trauma as from contact lenses, a scratch, or even a
loose eyelash. An eye can also look red as the result of something
more serious, such as cornal infection or foreign body, or
even be a sign of certain inner eye diseases.
Is Your Eye Red?
Healthy conjunctiva is transparent. It only looks white because
the sclera under it is white. (On the undersides of the lids
it looks pink because the tissues under it are pink.)
within the conjunctiva are many tiny blood vessels that normally
don't show. When there is a conjunctival inflammation or irritation,
the blood flow to these vessels is increased, engorging them
and making them visible against the white background -- thus
the term "pink eye." The reddish color is almost
never due to actual bleeding.
Pink Eye Contagious?
yes; sometimes no. It depends on what is causing it. Infectious
by bacteria or viruses) can be contagious; if the cause is
an allergy or irritant, it is not. Any time you aren't sure,
it is a good idea to assume it's contagious. That means not
touching your other eye after rubbing the pink eye, washing
your hands after touching the eye or lids, not sharing towels
or washcloths, and disposing of tissues used to wipe the eye.
Should You Do? Do You Need To See a Doctor?
If your eye feels scratchy and uncomfortable, it's all right
to try a mild over-the-counter lubricant for a few days, which
may provide temporary relief. Do not use any product that
contains a steroid because if you have an infection, that
can make it worse.
If the eye redness and irritation come on when you or a family
member has or has recently had an upper respiratory infection
(cold, fever, runny nose), the culprit is likely to be the
same "bug." If it's a virus, treatment will not
usually be helpflul. But for a bacterial infection, which
often causes a pus-like discharge or a crusty mattering on
the lids, a doctor may need to prescribe an antibiotic eyedrop
or ointment for you.
When both eyes are red, an allergy or atmospheric irritant
may be the cause. Be alert to this possibility and you may
be able to identify and avoid the offending substance. A seasonal
allergy is likely if the eyes get red and itchy around the
same time each year. If you are bothered a lot, medication
can be prescribed to relieve the symptoms.
If you wear contact lenses and develop conjunctival irritation
and redness that doesn't clear up in several hours after removing
the lenses, they might be the cause of a problem that requires
Sudden, profuse tearing with lids that tend to want to close
suggests a foreign body, a scratch, or a corneal infection.
If these symptoms don't subside within a few hours, your eye
should be examined. The same holds true if your child comes
running in from outdoors with a red, tearing eye. This almost
certainly means that the eye has been scratched or that there
is a small foreign body in it.
Conjunctivitis can occur in association with certain systemiccc
diseases. And sometimes a red eye is not conjunctivitis at
all, but a sign of a corneal problem or an internal eye condition
that needs prompt medical attention. This includes iritis
and uveitis (inflammations deep within the eye), and one uncommon
type of glaucoma.
causes of conjunctivitis are not serious and tend to clear
up on their own. Some go away after a few days, viral infections
may last several weeks, and an allergic reaction may go on
not ignore a persistently red eye in the hope that it will
go away. If the symptoms are irritating and last for more
than a few days, or especially if your eye is painful or if
there is a lot of discharge, the problem may not be trivial.
Any time you are not sure whether a red or pink eye is serious,
it is always better to be safe and have your eye examined.