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Pink Eye Symptoms

Pink eye symptoms can be irritating and should be attended to quickly.

Red, itchy eyes that are sensitive to light are common pink eye symptoms. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Red, itchy eyes that are sensitive to light are common pink eye symptoms.

Many people are familiar with pink eye from their grade-school days, when one person with pink eye symptoms quickly turned into a classroom of itchy-eyed students. The hallmark of pink eye (or conjunctivitis), which is a highly contagious condition, is the pink or reddish color the eye. Usually caused by a virus, pink eye can also be caused by bacteria, fungi, allergy, and the incomplete opening of the tear duct in newborns. While harmless in the long run and not an emergency condition, pink eye symptoms can be extremely contagious seven to 14 days after it's contracted, according to the Mayo Clinic. For this reason it is important to seek prompt diagnosis and treatment.

Understanding Pink Eye

Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is an infection or inflammation of the conjunctiva, the transparent membrane coating the eyelids and part of the eyeballs. When infected or inflamed, the tiny blood vessels located in the conjunctiva becomes more prominent, giving the eye a pink or reddish look.

While pink eye is often uncomfortable and irritating, it does not usually affect eyesight. The main cause for concern is its contagiousness. Its critical window is seven to 14 days after the first onset of symptoms. It is important to get an early diagnosis and subsequent treatment to prevent its spread.

Causes of Pink Eye

Often, pink eye is caused by a viral infection, though it can also be caused by bacteria, fungi and, on rare occasions, parasites. It can affect one or both eyes and may be linked to a cold or other respiratory infection. These types of pink eye infection are extremely contagious and can afflict adults and children.

Pink eye can be caused by incomplete development of the tear duct in infants, as well as by an allergic reaction to pollen and other allergens that cause the body to have an inflammatory response.

Pink eye can also occur after getting chemicals or other foreign objects in the eye. Individuals who wear contact lenses, especially extended-wear lenses, are more prone to pink eye.

Pink Eye Symptoms

Pink eye symptoms vary depending on the cause, and can affect one or both eyes. Some of the most common pink eye symptoms include:

• Redness
• Itchiness
• Tearing
• Sensitivity to light
• Constant pasty, gritty feeling in the eye
• Sticky, crusty discharge, causing the eye or eyes to feel glued shut, especially right after sleep

If pink eye is bacterially caused, the discharge will be thick and yellow-green in color. If it is virally caused, it will be more watery. Pink eye caused by an allergy may be accompanied by acute itching, tearing and inflammation, and one may develop what looks like a blister on the whites of the eyes. If caused by the intrusion of foreign objects, including chemicals, pink eye symptoms may include little more than irritation and redness.

Sometimes pink eye can be accompanied by an inflammation of the cornea, which can affect vision. If pink eye is suspected in any form, it is best to seek a healthcare professional for a diagnosis and treatment plan.

Treating Different Types of Pink Eye

Although pink eye symptoms can be uncomfortable, it is rarely a medical emergency and typically does not require extensive treatment. In fact, pink eye symptoms - especially if they are allergy-induced, or produced by an invasion of foreign substances - can disappear without treatment within a day or two.

However, pink eye can be extremely contagious. Avoiding its spread is crucial, especially in offices, schools or other public spaces. Doctors may suggest that those infected remain home for 24 hours after treatment has begun.

To test for pink eye, a sample of eye secretions may be taken for laboratory analysis. The analysis will show which form of pink eye is present and what the best treatment option might be.

Bacterial Pink Eye: If the pink eye is bacterial, antibiotic eye drops may be prescribed. This should clear up the problem within a few days. Sometimes antibiotic eye ointment may be prescribed. This form is easier to administer to younger children, and while it may cause a temporary blurring of the vision (up to 20 minutes), the pink eye symptoms should improve within a day or two. The medication must be used for the prescribed duration to prevent recurrence.

If pink eye persists or continually recurs in a young infant, the child's tear duct may be blocked. Seek a pediatrician; he or she may refer the child to an ophthalmologist for treatment.

Viral Pink Eye: Unlike bacterial pink eye, viral pink eye does not respond to antibiotic treatment. Like common cold symptoms, viral pink eye must run its course. Patients may experience a worsening of symptoms over the course of the first three to five days. Symptoms will gradually improve after that, and over-the-counter remedies can be used to relieve some of the symptoms. It may take two to three weeks for the virus to completely clear out of the system.

Allergic Pink Eye: Allergic pink eye may be treated with eye drops. These include antihistamines, steroids, decongestants, mast cell stabilizers and anti-inflammatory drops. Consult a doctor for the most appropriate form. Patients may also consider over-the-counter antihistamine eye drops such as Naphcon-A or Opcon-A.

Once pink eye has been diagnosed and a treatment plan established, there are steps to take to contain its spread and symptoms:

• Throw out eye cosmetics, such as mascara, and do not share or use cosmetics and eye-care items with others.
• Avoid sharing towels, washcloths, pillowcases - anything the person with pink eye may have touched - and wash these items daily.
• Avoid touching the eyes with hands.
• Avoid scratching the eye.
• Wash hands frequently and thoroughly.
• Follow doctor's instructions concerning proper eye care, as well as contact lens care.

Newborns are susceptible to bacteria, and sometimes the bacterial present in the mother's birth canal can cause them to develop pink eye. A serious form, known as ophthalmia neonatorum, can cause the infant to lose sight if treatment is delayed. To avoid onset and treatment delays, doctors may administer a preventative antibiotic ointment (erythromycin ointment) to newborn's eyes.

Recognizing pink eye symptoms early can help prevent the condition from spreading to family, classmates or coworkers. For more information on pink eye and conjunctivitis, visit the Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

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