All About Pink Eye

When you look in the mirror and one or both of your eyes has a pinkish, swollen look, you could have a condition called conjunctivitis, which is commonly referred to as "pink eye."

The Different Types of Pink Eye

There are different forms of pink eye and most them look pretty similar, but there are some subtle differences, explains Linda Hsueh, MD, an ophthalmologist affiliated with Summit Medical Group in New Jersey. Here is an overview of the three main categories:

1. Viral conjunctivitis. This is a highly contagious type of pink eye that causes your eye membrane to become itchy and irritated. It also causes redness and watery discharge that can make your eyelids feel stuck together, especially in the morning. In some cases, it may be accompanied by a swollen lymph node in front of your ear. Often the symptoms will begin in one eye but may quickly spread to the other. This type of pink eye commonly occurs along with an upper respiratory infection. When you notice sensitivity to light, this could indicate that your cornea is affected.

2. Allergic conjunctivitis. The symptoms of pink eye caused by allergies occur when an allergic reaction prompts the lining of your eye (the conjunctiva) to become inflamed and irritated. In this case, your eye or eyes will likely also be extremely itchy.

3. Other forms of conjunctivitis. Toxins, bacterial infections, herpes, and other forms of infections can also cause a similar inflammation of the eye's membrane. When a bacterial infection is involved, you may have heavier eye discharge. If the problem is caused by herpes, you could have a rash around your eye area.

Diagnosing and Treating Pink Eye

Your doctor can usually diagnose conjunctivitis with a clinical exam. He'll look at the subtle differences to try to determine the type. There's also a new test that can be used to identify adenovirus, which is a common form of viral conjunctivitis. While there's no treatment for viral forms of pink eye, there are some supportive steps you can take to help manage your discomfort. Hsueh suggests using cool compresses and artificial lubricants to ease the symptoms. You'll also need to stop wearing contact lenses and keep from touching your eyes. Topical antihistamines can help relieve your symptoms. For bacterial pink eye, topical antibiotics can treat the infection. (But Hsueh notes that using antibiotics inappropriately for viral pink eye can actually promote antibiotic resistance.) Antivirals are usually reserved only for those cases caused by herpes viral infections.

Tips to Prevent Spreading Pink Eye

It's crucial for people with viral pink eye to remain at home for a week and avoid others for as long as symptoms last to prevent spreading the condition. Other important steps to stop pink eye from spreading include:

  • Wash hands frequently
  • Keep hands away from the eyes
  • Use separate towels and linens
  • Avoid contact with others while the eye remains affected

In most cases, pink eye will go away within a week or two. Just keep in mind that you may still be contagious as long as the eye is still tearing and producing a discharge.

Linda Hsueh, MD, reviewed this article.


Linda Hsueh, MD, Ophthalmologist. Email interview, Oct. 8, 2013.