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Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye)

Conjunctival inflammation gives the eye a reddish tinge commonly known as pink eye.

The conjunctiva is the thin, clear membrane over the white part of the eye, lining the eyelids as well. Inflammation of this membrane is called conjunctivitis or pink eye.

Signs of Conjunctivitis

When the conjunctiva becomes inflamed, it gives the eye a reddish tinge, hence the common name of "pink eye." The eye also may hurt or itch.

How can you tell what type of conjunctivitis you have? The way your eyes feel will give some clues:

  • Viral conjunctivitis usually affects only one eye and causes excessive eye watering and a light discharge.
  • Bacterial conjunctivitis affects both eyes and causes a heavy discharge, sometimes greenish.
  • Allergic conjunctivitis affects both eyes, and causes itching and redness in the eyes and sometimes the nose, as well as excessive tearing. A special type of allergic conjunctivitis, giant papillary conjunctivitis, affects contact lens wearers.

Your doctor needs to know whether your conjunctivitis is allergic, bacterial or viral so he can choose the appropriate treatment. Usually, he'll ask you some questions and examine your eyes; he may even collect a sample on a swab to send out for analysis. A new system called a tear film analysis system can diagnose allergic conjunctivitis definitively. It measures IGe (immunoglobin E, an antibody present in allergic reactions) levels in your tears; high levels mean allergic conjunctivitis, while low levels indicate a viral or mild bacterial conjunctivitis.

To pinpoint the cause and then choose an appropriate treatment, your doctor will ask some questions, examine your eyes, and possibly collect a sample on a swab to send out for analysis. Give a careful account of the episode, because oftentimes your answers alone with reveal the diagnosis.

What Causes Pink Eye?

Conjunctivitis may be triggered by a virus, bacteria or an allergic reaction to dust, pollen, smoke, fumes or chemicals. Bacterial and viral systemic infections also may induce conjunctivitis.

Pink Eye Treatment

Avoidance. Your first line of defense is to avoid the cause of conjunctivitis. Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis spread easily to others. Here are some tips to avoid spreading the conditions or re-infecting yourself:

  1. Wash your hands frequently, and avoid touching or rubbing your eyes.
  2. Don't share washcloths, towels or pillowcases with anyone else, and wash these items after each use.
  3. Don't share eyedrops or cosmetics such as eyeliner, eye shadow or mascara. Replace them after you're healed, to avoid re-infection.
  4. Your eyecare practitioner may recommend that you discontinue contact lens wear during this time or replace your contact lenses after you're healed.

Warm compresses may help soothe your eyes if you have viral or bacterial conjunctivitis.

To avoid allergic conjunctivitis, keep windows and doors closed on days when the pollen is heavy. Dust and vacuum frequently to alleviate potential allergens in the home. Stay in well-ventilated areas if you're exposed to smoke, chemicals or fumes. Cold compresses can be very soothing.


Doctors don't normally prescribe medication for viral conjunctivitis because it usually clears up on its own within a few days. Antibiotic eyedrops will alleviate bacterial conjunctivitis, whereas antihistamine allergy pills or eyedrops will help control allergic conjunctivitis symptoms.

Usually, conjunctivitis is a minor eye infection, but sometimes it can develop into a more serious condition. See your eyecare practitioner for a diagnosis before using any eyedrops in your medicine cabinet from previous infections or eye problems.

Giant Papillary Conjunctivitis and Contact Lenses

Giant papillary conjunctivitis (GPC) is a form of allergic conjunctivitis most often seen in soft contact lens wearers. People with asthma, hay fever or animal allergies may be at greater risk. The cause of GPC is probably an allergic reaction to collected debris on contact lenses.

It may not occur until months or even years after you first start wearing contacts. You get these bright red bumps on the underside of your eyelids. Your eyes itch after taking out your contacts. You may get some mucus discharge in the morning. Bright light is especially bothersome. You find yourself having to remove your lenses as the day wears on because of the discomfort.

To relieve the problem, make an appointment to see your eyecare practitioner. You will need to leave the lenses out for a few days. Hopefully, you have a pair of glasses to wear in the meantime. Lubricating drops will alleviate the discomfort. Mast cell stabilizer drops do a great job of eliminating the itching. Examples include Opticrom, Crolom and Alomide. Especially effective is the combination mast cell stabilizer/antihistamine Patanol. In the most severe cases, you may need to use a mild steroid drop such as Vexol, Lotemax or Alrex for a week or so. These are all prescription drugs.

Finally, since the cause of the problem was accumulated deposits on the contacts, it may be a good idea to switch to daily disposable contact lenses. If so, the problem should never happen again. At the very least, replace those cruddy old lenses with fresh new ones.

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