What is pink eye and how can I treat it?

Pink Eye
Conjunctivitis, commonly known as “pink eye,” often stirs a sense of panic in many people, who think that they are extremely contagious and will be banned from school/classes or that their vision will somehow be forever altered.

However, there really is no need for panic or fear. Please read the following information to fully understand the cause, treatment, and spread of Pink Eye (medically known as Conjunctivitis).

Pink Eye refers to the inflammation of the outer covering of the eye and inner covering of the eyelids, called the conjunctiva.

The two most common causes of inflammation of the conjunctiva are infection and allergies.

Infections of the conjunctiva can be either viral or bacterial in nature.

» Viral infections are responsible for approximately 70 to 80 percent of infections and many times will accompany cold symptoms, but not always. The infection often occurs in one eye and then spreads to the other eye. Symptoms include watery clear to yellowish discharge which may cause crusting of the eyelashes upon awakening in the morning. The eyelids and skin surrounding the eye may appear puffy and reddened. The conjunctiva appears pink and injected with vessels (commonly known as bloodshot in appearance). Other symptoms may include itching and a feeling of grittiness or irritation with blinking. Vision should be undisturbed. Whenever large numbers of people develop pinkeye within a specific population, viral infection is usually the cause. Antibiotics have no effect on viral infections.

» Bacterial infections are less common as the cause of pink eye. The symptoms are very similar to viral infection symptoms. Often the infection may only affect one eye and later spread to the other. The conjunctiva is usually pink and injected (bloodshot). The eyelid and surrounding skin of the eye may be slightly swollen and reddened. The eye may feel gritty or irritated and/or itchy. A difference, compared to viral pink eye, may be the fact that the discharge is often more abundant and thicker. In the mornings the eyelids may be completely matted together with thick yellow to green drainage. However, depending upon the responsible bacteria, the discharge may be no different than that of viral pinkeye.

Allergies can also produce symptoms of pink eye. Typically, both eyes will be involved. The conjunctiva is pink and injected. Discharge is usually clear and watery or stringy mucus-like in nature. The eyelids and surrounding skin of the eye may be swollen and reddened.

Symptoms and Treatment

With the symptoms of all three causes so similar, how is a diagnosis made and how is treatment decided?

First, keep in mind that 70 to 75 percent of all cases of Pink eye, regardless of cause, will go away without treatment within 3 to 5 days and without any residual problems. The use of antibiotic drops is not necessary in most cases. Even bacterial pink eye will usually resolve without any treatment in 3 to 5 days. Our society has become obsessed with the use “and need” for medicine — a quick fix. This is not to say that antibiotic drops are never necessary. They do have their place in the treatment of some cases. If a pink eye does not resolve with self care in 3 to 5 days, antibiotics may then be considered.

To determine the exact cause of pink eye [if the exact cause must be known], cultures of the eye could be done. However, cultures tend to be costly and require up to 48 hours to identify the cause. Since most viral and bacterial pink eye will resolve, without treatment in 3 to 5 days, culturing is considered a necessary expense/use of resources.

What can be done to stop the spread?

The number one, most important thing to stop the spread of pink eye (from infection) is good hand washing. Whenever hands touch the eye, they must be washed. Tissues used to cleanse the eye should be discarded directly into the trash and not held in pockets or purses for future use — and again, hands should be cleansed. Use of hand sanitizer is also appropriate. People with pink eye can certainly continue with their day to day activities and go to classes — just be diligent about preventing the spread.


Self-care treatment is easy:

  • Try to avoid touching affected eyes. If hands do touch the eye(s), cleanse them immediately.
  • Alternate applications of moist heat and cold. Heat will stimulate increased blood flow to the eye which will speed the delivery of the body’s defense and repair mechanisms. Cold compresses are very soothing and help to calm an eye that may be itchy.
  • The use of decongestants (example: Sudafed) may help to reduce nasal and sinus congestion and subsequently congestion in the eye (decongestants are often Central Nervous System stimulants which may prevent sleep). Antihistamines will also relieve congestion and also calm itching but they have the tendency to cause drowsiness. The Health Center advises using Sudafed during the day and Benadryl at bedtime.
  • Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory/fever-reducing medication. Use of this medication may help to reduce irritation/inflammation of the eye. Ibuprofen 2 to 3 tablets (400 to 600 mg) taken 3 times daily is the recommended dosing and can be combined with Sudafed or Benadryl. If you have any pregnancy concerns or if you are taking other medications for chronic conditions, consult a health care provider before taking any medication.
  • If you wear contacts, keep them out until your eyes are back to normal. New contacts should be resumed if disposable are used. If not, contacts should be thoroughly cleaned before re-use. Eye make-up should also be avoided.
  • The use of over the counter saline drops may be used as needed.
  • Eye make-up, especially eyeliner and mascara can harbor viruses or bacteria and could potentially re-infect the eyes. If these products were used when the eyes were infected, they should be discarded.

Symptoms of Concern

If you have Pink eye and develop the following symptoms, you should seek a medical evaluation:

  • Pain in or around the affected eye
  • Difficulty keeping the affected eye open
  • Severe sensitivity to bright light
  • Changes in vision: decreased acuity, blurring, spots
  • Symptoms that do not clear within 3 to 5 days
  • Or any other symptoms of personal concern

If you have any questions, feel free to contact the Student Health Center to speak with one of the Triage Nurses: 570-389-2722, or 570-389-3800, or 570-389-5055