Tips for Understanding Pink Eye

When should you be concerned about a red eye?

Rob Lamberts, MD
4-minute read
Episode #31

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.


Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.