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Pinkeye

Pinkeye

Topic Overview

Picture of the anatomy of the eye

Pinkeye (also called conjunctivitis) is redness and swelling of the conjunctiva, the mucous membrane that lines the eyelid and eye surface. The lining of the eye is usually clear. If irritation or infection occurs, the lining becomes red and swollen. See pictures of a normal eye and an eye with conjunctivitis .

Pinkeye is very common. It usually is not serious and goes away in 7 to 10 days without medical treatment.

Most cases of pinkeye are caused by:

Viral and bacterial pinkeye are contagious and spread very easily. Since most pinkeye is caused by viruses for which there is usually no medical treatment, preventing its spread is important. Poor hand-washing is the main cause of the spread of pinkeye. Sharing an object, such as a washcloth or towel, with a person who has pinkeye can spread the infection. For more information, see Prevention.

Viral pinkeye

Viral pinkeye is often caused by an adenovirus, which is a common respiratory virus that can also cause a sore throat or upper respiratory infection. The herpes virus can also cause viral pinkeye.

Symptoms of viral pinkeye include:

  • Redness in the white of the eye.
  • Swelling of the eyelids.
  • Itching or burning feeling of the eyelids.
  • Swollen and tender areas in front of the ears.
  • A lot of tearing.
  • Clear or slightly thick, whitish drainage.

Viral pinkeye symptoms usually last 5 to 7 days but may last up to 3 weeks and can become ongoing or chronic.

Pinkeye may be more serious if you:

  • Have a condition that decreases your body's ability to fight infection ( impaired immune system ).
  • Have vision in only one eye.
  • Wear contact lenses.

If the pinkeye is caused by a virus, the person can usually return to day care, school, or work when symptoms begin to improve, typically in 3 to 5 days. Medicines are not usually used to treat viral pinkeye, so it is important to prevent the spread of the infection. Pinkeye caused by a herpes virus, which is rare, can be treated with an antiviral medicine. Home treatment of viral pinkeye symptoms can help you feel more comfortable while the infection goes away.

Bacterial pinkeye

An infection may develop when bacteria enter the eye or the area around the eye. Some common infections that cause pinkeye include:

Symptoms of bacterial pinkeye include:

  • Redness in the white of the eye.
  • Gray or yellow drainage from the eye. This drainage may cause the eyelashes to stick together.
  • Mild pain .
  • Swelling of the upper eyelid, which may make the lid appear to droop (pseudoptosis).

Bacterial pinkeye may cause more drainage than viral pinkeye. Bacterial infections usually last 7 to 10 days without antibiotic treatment and 2 to 4 days with antibiotic treatment. The person can usually return to day care, school, or work 24 hours after an antibiotic has been started if symptoms have improved. Prescription antibiotic treatment usually kills the bacteria that cause pinkeye.

Red eye

Red eye is a more general term that includes not only pinkeye but also many other problems that cause redness on or around the eye, not just the lining. Pinkeye is the main cause of red eye. Red eye has other causes, including:

Swollen, red eyelids may also be caused by styes , a lump called a chalazion , inflammation of the eyelid ( blepharitis ), or lack of tears (dry eyes). For more information, see the topics Styes and Chalazia and Eyelid Problems (Blepharitis).

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

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  Eye Problems: Using Eyedrops and Eye Ointment

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Home Treatment

Home treatment for pinkeye will help reduce your pain and keep your eye free of drainage. If you wear contacts, remove them and wear glasses until your symptoms have gone away completely. Thoroughly clean your contacts and storage case.

Cold compresses or warm compresses (whichever feels best) can be used. If an allergy is the problem, a cool compress may feel better. If the pinkeye is caused by an infection, then a warm, moist compress may soothe your eye and help reduce redness and swelling. Warm, moist compresses can spread infection from one eye to the other. Use a different compress for each eye, and use a clean compress for each application.

When cleaning your eye, wipe from the inside (next to the nose) toward the outside. Use a clean surface for each wipe so that drainage being cleaned away is not rubbed back across the eye. If tissues or wipes are used, make sure they are put in the trash and are not allowed to sit around. If washcloths are used to clean the eye, put them in the laundry right away so that no one else picks them up or uses them. After wiping your eye, wash your hands to prevent the pinkeye from spreading.

After pinkeye has been diagnosed:

  • To learn how to prevent the spread of pinkeye, see Prevention.
  • Do not go to day care or school or go to work until pinkeye has improved.
    • If the pinkeye is caused by a virus, the person can usually return to day care, school, or work when symptoms begin to improve, typically in 3 to 5 days. Medicines are not usually used to treat viral pinkeye, so preventing its spread is important. Home treatment of the symptoms will help you feel more comfortable while the infection goes away.
    • If the pinkeye is caused by bacteria, the person can usually return to day care, school, or work after the infection has been treated for 24 hours with an antibiotic and symptoms are improving. Prescription antibiotic treatment usually kills the bacteria that cause pinkeye.
  • Use medicine as directed. Medicine may include eyedrops and eye ointment.
    Click here to view an Actionset. Eye Problems: Using Eyedrops and Eye Ointments

For pinkeye related to allergies, antihistamines , such as loratadine (Claritin) or cetirizine (Zyrtec), may help relieve your symptoms. Don't give antihistamines to your child unless you've checked with the doctor first.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Decreased or blurred vision develops, and it doesn't clear with blinking.
  • Eye pain continues or increases.
  • Sensitivity to light ( photophobia ) develops.
  • Signs of an infection develop.
  • Symptoms become more severe or frequent.

Prevention

Pinkeye is spread through contact with the eye drainage, which contains the virus or bacteria that caused the pinkeye. Touching an infected eye leaves drainage on your hand. If you touch your other eye or an object when you have drainage on your hand, the virus or bacteria can be spread.

The following tips help prevent the spread of pinkeye.

  • Wash your hands before and after:
    • Touching the eyes or face.
    • Using medicine in the eyes.
  • Do not share eye makeup.
  • Do not use eye makeup until the infection is fully cured, because you could reinfect yourself with the eye makeup products. If your eye infection was caused by bacteria or a virus, throw away your old makeup and buy new products.
  • Do not share contact lens equipment, containers, or solutions.
  • Do not wear contact lenses until the infection is cured. Thoroughly clean your contacts before wearing them again.
  • Do not share eye medicine.
  • Do not share towels, linens, pillows, or handkerchiefs. Use clean linens, towels, and washcloths daily.
  • Wash your hands and wear gloves if you are looking into someone else's eye for a foreign object or helping someone else apply an eye medicine.
  • When in the wind, heat, or cold, wear eye protection to prevent eye irritation.
  • Wear safety glasses when working with chemicals.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What are your main symptoms?
  • How long have you had your symptoms?
  • Have you had any vision changes, increased pain in the eye, or increased sensitivity to light?
  • Have you had this problem before? If so, do you know what caused the problem at the time? How was it treated?
  • Do you wear contact lenses or eyeglasses?
  • Does anyone in your family or at your workplace have signs of an eye infection, such as drainage from the eye or red and swollen eyes?
  • Have you been exposed to fumes or chemicals?
  • What home treatment measures have you tried? Did they help?
  • What prescription or nonprescription medicines have you tried? Did they help?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Related Information

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised December 23, 2011

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