The Low Down on Pink Eye

Just your luck, it’s Friday afternoon and you find that you or your loved one has a pink eye, it may be a little irritated or painful, and you are worried because the weekend is coming up.  Your optometrist’s office may be closing soon.  Should you call your optometrist, go to urgent care, or risk the weekend without seeing an eye doctor?

Photo Courtesy of Lone Primate on Flickr.com

Photo Courtesy of Lone Primate on Flickr.com

Pink eye is a term used to describe an irritated pink or red eye.  The medical term is conjunctivitis which is an inflammation of the thin tissue overlying the whites of the eyes.  However, there are a variety of eye conditions that can cause an eye to become pink or irritated, although conjunctivitis is the most common cause.  Conjunctivitis can often be categorized into 3 different categories:

Bacterial conjunctivitis – This form is caused by bacteria and can be transferred in a variety of ways ranging from airborne to direct contact on one’s fingertips.  Bacterial conjunctivitis can cause sticky, yellowish green discharge, occasionally resulting in the lids sticking shut in the mornings.  The eye may be pink, painful, and sensitive to light.  Usually only one eye is affected although the other eye can become infected by indirect contact.  It is contagious and is often treated with antibiotic eye drops.  Once you have been treated for 24 hours with antibiotics, you are no longer contagious.

If you are a contact lens wearer, an irritated, painful and pink eye is usually the result of a bacterial infection.  This needs to be treated right away because you may develop a corneal ulcer and risk permanent vision loss.

Viral conjunctivitis – Most instances of viral conjunctivitis will cause the eyes to appear red and glassy, and there may be a watery discharge.  It usually affects both eyes and may be accompanied by an upper respiratory infection.  The lymph nodes in front of the ears and along the neck may be tender and swollen.  These cases are highly contagious and cannot be treated with medication.  They will resolve on their own within 7 to 10 days.  Some may take as long as 3 weeks.  Until then, patients should avoid spreading it to others.  Some may find relief with cool compresses or artificial tears throughout the day.

Occasionally, an eye can become infected by the herpes simplex or herpes zoster virus.  Symptoms may include a pink eye, pain, decrease in vision, or blisters on one side of the face.  These patients need to be seen and treated immediately in order to prevent vision loss.

Allergic conjunctivitis – This form of pink eye is prevalent throughout the year, depending on a person’s allergies and the plants that are in bloom during that season.  Allergic conjunctivitis will typically cause itching, tearing, and sticky, thick and white discharge that affects both eyes.  Some may notice their symptoms are worse after being outdoors.  Many often complain of an itchy throat or runny nose.  Usually, oral allergy medications will alleviate the symptoms related to the eyes, but many require the additional use of topical allergy eye drops to relieve symptoms.

I have seen a number of patients on a Friday afternoon with complaints of a pink eye.  Many times, the symptoms are not severe enough to determine what form of conjunctivitis the patient has, which can make treatment a little trickier.  In those cases, we advise the patient to return for a follow-up visit to determine if the treatment was effective.

A good rule of thumb for whether or not you need to see an optometrist when you have a pink eye is that if you are experiencing pain, light sensitivity, are noticing reduced vision or wear contact lenses, then visit an eye doctor today.  Make sure you do not put on your contact lenses.  I often advise my patients to try seeing an eye doctor first, rather than visiting urgent care as they may not have all the tools required to adequately diagnose your eye condition.

So, keep your hands clean, don’t share towels and avoid touching your face and eyes!

– Cindy P. Wang, OD, FAAO

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