Redness, swelling, itching, irritation. These are just some of the symptoms of conjunctivitis, an eye ailment that affects millions of adults and children at any given time, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Also known as pinkeye, the condition refers to an inflammation of the conjuctiva, the thin, clear membrane that covers the eye's white portion. When the conjuctiva becomes inflamed, the normally white part of the eye takes on a telltale pink or reddish color.

What Causes Conjunctivitis?

Although pinkeye may be triggered by a number of factors, the most common culprits are viruses, bacteria, or allergies. Viral infections generally cause watering, soreness, and discharge in one eye, while bacterial conjunctivitis affects both eyes. When allergies are to blame, both eyes are usually irritated, and the nose may also be red, itchy, or inflamed.

Preventing Pinkeye

Most types of conjunctivitis aren't vision-threatening, but the condition is uncomfortable, and the viral and bacterial forms are highly contagious. Although there's no surefire way to prevent pinkeye, there are several steps you can take to reduce your risk:

  • Wash your hands. Cleanse your hands frequently with antibacterial soap to kill the germs that spread pinkeye.
  • Go disposable. Rely on single-use paper towels, tissues, and wipes to decrease your exposure to viruses and bacteria.
  • Be hands-off. Don't touch your eyes, nose, or face, especially if they've been in contact with common objects or other people.
  • Do more laundry. Use a clean towel and washcloth every day, and don't share them with the rest of the household.
  • Keep it fresh. Replace your pillowcases and sheets with freshly laundered ones at least once a week.
  • Throw it away. Eye makeup can be a breeding ground for bacteria, so remember to discard your eyeliner and mascara every few months.

Treating Pinkeye

If you think you may have conjunctivitis, it's important to see a health-care professional as soon as possible. He or she can provide an accurate diagnosis and rule out more serious eye problems. The treatments your doctor recommends will depend on the type of conjunctivitis you have.

Viral pinkeye, like a common cold, generally has to run its course, which may take a few days to a week. If you've been diagnosed with bacterial pinkeye, your doctor may prescribe antibiotic eye drops, ointments, or pills. And if you have allergic conjunctivitis, the goal of treatment will be to first identify and then remove the allergen.

Soothing Your Symptoms

If you have an infectious form of conjunctivitis, experts recommend calling in sick to work and keeping children home from school. So, chances are, you'll be stuck at home for a few days. In the meantime, there are several ways to help relieve your symptoms:

  • Warm it up. To soothe discomfort, never rub your eye. Instead, soak a clean cloth in warm water, wring it out, and apply it to your closed eye.
  • Go au natural. When you have pinkeye, avoid cosmetics at all costs. Eye makeup, in particular, can make symptoms worse.
  • Protect yourself. It's important to safeguard your eyes from bacteria and irritants, such as harsh fumes and cleaning agents.
  • Take a break. Remove your contact lenses, and don't put them back in until your symptoms subside. In the meantime, wear glasses.
  • Drop out. Some eye drops, such as artificial tears, can help to alleviate symptoms. However, not all eye drops are helpful, so be sure to check with your doctor first.