What Is Pink Eye?

When should you be concerned about a red eye?

Rob Lamberts, MD,
February 8, 2012
Episode #031

It strikes terror into the heart of schools and daycare centers everywhere. It is extremely contagious and can make people miserable when infected. What am I talking about? Flu? Tuberculosis? Ebola virus? No, I am talking about the most dreaded illness in childhood: pink eye.

So why is pink eye so feared? Why is it the Charles Manson of viruses in kindergartens around the country? Well…uh…to be truthful, I’m not really sure. But I am getting ahead of myself. I first need to give you some background.

What Is Pink Eye?

The medical name for pink eye is conjunctivitis. Yes, it does sound like a word you use to sound smart at parties. The conjunctiva are layers of cells on the white parts of the eyes and on the inside of the eyelids. It’s one of the many mucous membranes on the body and it lubricates your eyes so you can open and close them easily. It also protects your eye. Conjunctivitis describes a number of conditions in which the conjunctiva becomes inflamed and turns the eye red.

There are many causes of conjunctivitis, including allergies, viruses, bacteria, swimming in a chlorinated pool, and even foreign bodies in the eye.

As long as the conjunctiva gets red and irritated, it’s called conjunctivitis. Now, the pink eye that we all know and love is caused by a virus.

How Do You Know if You Have Pink Eye?

The typical symptoms of viral conjunctivitis are eye redness, itching or burning, and a crusty, goopy discharge that makes your eyes stick shut when you wake up. The virus is highly contagious, and so will usually eventually infect both eyes. The redness and discharge looks gross and is uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t blur the vision. It typically lasts from 3-5 days. But gross and uncomfortable is not the same as life threatening and dangerous. It’s no big deal, IT’S ONLY PINK EYE.

Is Pink Eye Dangerous?

Ah, are you sensing an attitude on my part? Yes, this is one of my pet peeves in medicine. I don’t know how it happened, but pink eye causes a huge number of unnecessary missed days from work and school and IT’S ONLY PINK EYE! The reason for the fear is that it is very contagious. Nobody wants to be the parent who sends their kid to school only to infect the entire class, so kids are sent home immediately for the first sign of it. That’s because every other parent doesn’t want their kid to get it and risk infecting more kids. But guys, IT’S ONLY PINK EYE! I have never hospitalized someone for it. It makes your eyes pink for a few days, and then goes away. So what if it’s contagious? It’s not leprosy; IT’S ONLY PINK EYE!

So myth number one is that pink eye is dangerous. It’s not. Myth number two happens in my office, when parents bring their kids in to have it treated. For some reason, educators have decided that kids can come back to school after 24 hours of using antibiotic eye drops. What did I say causes typical pink eye? A virus. What do antibiotics do to viruses? Nothing (for more on this, refer to my episode on antibiotic overuse). But, I confess, I still prescribe the stuff. Why do I still give antibiotic eye drops for kids when it doesn’t help? To get them back to school and get their parents back to work. After all, IT’S ONLY PINK EYE.

That feels good to get this off of my chest. Thanks for letting me vent.

What Other Conditions Cause Red Eyes?

Now that I have vented my spleen, I need to say that there are a couple of other kinds of conjunctivitis

Allergic conjunctivitis: The most common cause of red eye in the spring and fall in many parts of the country is allergic conjunctivitis. That problem usually causes itchy eyes and a runny nose. There is usually not much of a discharge from the eye.

Bacterial conjunctivitis: Bacterial conjunctivitis can happen as a consequence of viral conjunctivitis and it causes the eye to be very red with lots of goopy discharge. Bacterial conjunctivitis tends to happen in only one eye. The argument most doctors give for using antibiotic eye drops in treating pink eye is to prevent bacterial conjunctivitis, but truth be told, bacterial conjunctivitis is uncommon and can be treated if it comes up.

There are a couple of bad eye problems that also cause a red eye and I’ll discuss them in another article.

Quick and Dirty Pink Eye Tips

So here are my Quick and Dirty Tips about pink eye.

Tip 1: Don’t Freak Out – It’s Only Pink Eye!
You cannot control others freaking out, but you don’t have to join them. If your child’s school or daycare makes you get an antibiotic, try to educate them. Give them this article, if that will help. But a red, itchy, crusty, and goopy eye without vision loss or significant pain is viral conjunctivitis. It will go away on its own.

Tip 2: Know When to See a Doctor
Eye pain and blurring are the bad signs, and could be symptoms of a vision-threatening condition. Seek medical help immediately. Eye redness and pain on a single eye could be a herpes infection or a bacteria infection. See your doctor for those as well. Lastly, if you think you have a foreign body in your eye and the irritation persists for longer than a day, you should visit the doctor to get it looked at.

If you have questions you want answered, send them to housecalldoctor@quickanddirtytips.com. You can find me on Twitter as @housecalldoc and on Facebook under House Call Doctor.

Let me remind you that this podcast is for informational purposes only. My goal is to add to your medical knowledge and translate some of the weird medical stuff you hear, so when you do go to your doctor, your visits will be more fruitful. I don’t intend to replace your doctor; he or she is the one you should always consult about your own medical condition.

Catch you next time!  Stay Healthy!