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What is Pink Eye?

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The technical term for pink eye is conjunctivitis. The conjunctiva is the clear layer of tissue that covers the white of the eye (the sclera), and lines the underside of the eyelids. An inflammation of the conjunctiva is called conjunctivitis, and the tissue often looks red or pink because the blood vessels appear more prominent.


There are a number of different causes of conjunctivitis. Often, conjunctivitis is caused by a virus and may develop along with or soon after a head cold. Other types of conjunctivitis are caused by bacteria. Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are easily spread from one eye to the other, and between people. Conjunctivitis can also be caused by allergies. Environmental allergies can cause chronic conjunctivitis, usually in both eyes at the same time. An allergy or sensitivity to an eye drop, makeup, face creams, or other materials that get into the eye may cause an acute allergic conjunctivitis.


The common term”pink eye” derives from the often pale red or pink appearance of an eye suffering from conjunctivitis. In addition to redness, an eye with conjunctivitis may feel itchy, scratchy, or generally irritated. In some forms of conjunctivitis, there is a discharge that drains from the eye, which may have a whitish or yellowish appearance. In other types of conjunctivitis, there is no discharge, but the eye may feel watery or teary. Patients with some forms of conjunctivitis may wake up with eyelids that feel matted together.


Your eye doctor will examine your eyes to determine which type of conjunctivitis you have. Treatment varies depending upon the type of conjunctivitis. Treatment of allergic conjunctivitis involves removal of any contact with the allergen if possible, and lubrication to flush out allergens from the eye. More severe allergies are treated with allergy drops, and sometimes with the use of a steroid drop. Bacterial conjunctivitis is treated with an antibiotic eye drop or eye ointment. Viral conjunctivitis is treated with lubrication, and if appropriate, a steroid drop is sometimes used to speed recovery time. In both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis, frequent hand-washing is required to minimize the risk of transmitting your conjunctivitis to others. Contact lenses are not worn until your doctor has determined that your conjunctivitis has resolved, and dependent upon how contagious your conjunctivitis, you may be asked to stay home from work or school for a few days.