pink eye

For many of us, pink eye is a fairly common ailment and somewhat of a childhood rite of passage. Most people at some point in life will either contract it themselves or will come in close proximity to someone who has it. Although we know it doesn't cause serious harm, we still like to avoid getting it if at all possible.

Generally, we hear the same advice on how to deal with it: Don’t touch it. It’s highly contagious. Don’t rub your eyes. Stay away from other people.

But where does it come from, how do we treat it, and most importantly, how do we avoid getting it altogether?

What is it?

Pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, is a condition of the eye where the conjunctiva (the membrane lining on the eyeball and eyelid) becomes swollen and irritated, causing a red or pinkish discoloration. Depending on the type, the eye may produce discharge. Depending on the severity, it can be fairly painful and almost always itchy and uncomfortable.

In most cases, the condition usually goes away on its own in 7 to 10 days without treatment. Although pink eye is generally not considered dangerous, additional problems can occur for those who wear contacts or have poor immune systems.


Different Kinds of Pink Eye

Although the resulting condition is generally the same, there are actually four different types of conjunctivitis, each related to the way it is contracted.

Allergic Conjunctivitis

This is where conjunctivitis is brought on by certain allergens in the air which react with your eyes. This type of pink eye is not contagious and usually occurs during Spring and Fall. Allergic pink eye can be treated with a cold compress and over-the-counter eye drops.

Viral Conjunctivitis

There are a number of different viruses that can cause pink eye, and most of them are associated with upper respiratory tract infection, cold, and sore throat.[1] This is the kind of pink eye that spreads the fastest and is highly contagious, sometimes leading to outbreaks. Viral conjunctivitis can sometimes last for weeks, and antibiotics are ineffective because antibiotics don’t kill viruses. However, there are no long term effects associated with it. Viral pink eye can be treated with a warm compress and drops as needed.

Bacterial Conjunctivitis

As the name suggests, this is caused by certain bacteria that come in contact with the eye. This kind is also very contagious, and some infections like certain STDs (including gonorrhea) and staph infection can lead to this kind of conjunctivitis. Symptoms can include a yellow or darker colored discharge which causes the eyelashes to stick together. Although it normally resolves on its own, there are certain prescription antibiotics that can actually kill the bacteria.

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Toxic Conjunctivitis

Chemical or toxic pink eye is caused by fumes or chemicals that enter the eye, and a milder form can result from chlorine found in swimming pools. Naturally, this kind is not contagious. Treatment includes completely flushing the eye with water and applying drops or ointment as needed. Although it is the least common type, it can be one of the most painful.[2]

Avoiding Pink Eye

So what is the best way to ensure that we don’t get it?

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For the toxic and allergic types, the answer is fairly obvious. Try to limit exposure to chemicals and allergens. If you know that you are prone to contracting the allergic type, see a doctor about new treatments for allergy sufferers. Some of these can prevent pink eye before it gets a chance to get started.[3]

For contagious pink eye, the following are best practices for keeping it away:

  • Wash hands often. Hand sanitizer is always a good idea as well.
  • Don’t touch an infected eye, even if it is your own. The infection can easily spread to the other eye.
  • Avoid sharing towels and linens, especially with those known to be infected.
  • Avoid sharing eye makeup and droppers.
  • If others you live or work with contract it but are unable to isolate themselves, minimize contact with them to the extent possible and don't share objects.

Contact with people who have the contagious form is generally safe when symptoms begin to subside or after beginning a regimen of antibiotics. Those infected should avoid contact with others until visual evidence of the condition disappears.

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Recent Outbreaks

In April 2014 an outbreak occurred in American Samoa, causing officials to shut down 28 schools after more than 2300 students and over 100 teachers were infected. This infection moved quickly and even affected court cases, causing certain public hearings to be postponed as the assistant public defender became infected.[4]