An excerpt from the book Taking
Care of Your Eyes.
At one time or another, nearly everyone has had pink eye,
or conjunctivitis (kun-junk-tih-VI-tiss). In fact, this is
one of the more common reasons people go to an eye doctor.
The word conjunctivitis 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 undersides
of the eyelids. "Inflammation" means that this membrane is
red, irritated or swollen.
is not a disease, but simply a reaction to something that
is irritating the eye. There are many conditions that can
cause it. Usually, but not always, it results from a viral
or bacterial infection, but it can also be caused by allergy,
irritants such as air pollution, smoke or noxious fumes, or
minor trauma as from contact lenses, a scratch, or even a
Is Your Eye Red?
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.) Buried
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
conjunctivitis (caused by bacteria or viruses) can be contagious;
but 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, and
disposing of tissues used to wipe the eye.
You Need a Doctor?
causes of conjunctivitis are not serious and tend to clear
up on their own. Some resolve after a few days, but viral
infections may last several weeks and an allergic reaction
may go on for months. If your eye feels scratchy and uncomfortable,
it's all right to try a mild over-the-counter lubricant, which
may provide temporary relief. But do not use any medication
that contains corticosteroids (steroids for short), because
if you have an infection, they can make it worse. Used without
supervision, steroids can also lead to serious eye problems,
such as glaucoma, cataract, or even blindness.
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
helpful. But for a bacterial infection, which often causes
a gooey or pus-like discharge or a crusty mattering on the
lids, you may need to have an antibiotic eyedrop or ointment
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.
you wear contact lenses and develop conjunctival irritation
and redness that doesn't clear up in several hours after removing
the lenses, it could indicate that they are causing a problem
that requires treatment. Sudden, profuse tearing with lids
that tend to want to close suggests that there is something
in the eye or that the eye has been scratched or has a corneal
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 foreign body in it.
can occur in association with certain systemic 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, uveitis (inflammations
deep within the eye), and one uncommon type of glaucoma.
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.