Conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye (or red eye), is inflammation of the thin, transparent membrane on the surface of your eye. But what causes it and how is it best treated?
Help! Why have I got pink eye?
If you – or your child – wake up one morning to a red or pink eye, there’s a long list of possible causes, including some rare and serious ones.
But by far the most common cause is some form of conjunctivitis, or inflammation of the conjunctiva – that thin, cling-wrap-like layer that covers the white of your eye AND the inside of your eyelids.
What causes conjunctivitis?
This condition is most likely caused by a viral or bacterial infection. It’s a bit like getting a cold in your eye and often appears when you have a cold, sore throat or ear infection.
Even a doctor can struggle to diagnose whether your pink eye is caused by bacteria or a virus. The symptoms are usually different but there can be cases where it’s hard to tell.
Viral conjunctivitis has a few trademark clinical signs, including association with a cold or sore throat.
It is really important to realise that if you have a virus, antibiotics will not help. They may even make things worse by adding preservatives to your already compromised eyes.
It is an unfortunate fact that many doctors hand out Chlorsig eye drops to anyone with conjunctivitis, when only a small percentage actually need them.
Who should I see if I have pink eye?
Your first port of call should ideally be a therapeutic optometrist. This is an optometrist who has additional training in the diagnosis and treatment of many eye diseases and can prescribe the appropriate eye drops for you.
An optometrist will have an essential piece of diagnostic equipment called a slit-lamp, which allows them to illuminate your eye and view it under high magnification. They will also be able to examine the whole eye, including the inside, to rule out more sinister causes of a sudden-onset red eye.
What is the best treatment for pink eye?
That really depends on the underlying cause. If it’s viral – the most common form – the virus will run its course, much like heard cold. You can’t do much about it other than manage the symptoms.
There are some things that help relief discomfort such as:
- Non-preserved artificial tears – these can help with comfort and flush out the virus.
- Cold compresses – applying a cool pack to closed eyes regularly throughout the day can reduce inflammation and bring symptomatic relief.
If it IS bacterial (often associated with an ear infection and a thick, mucous discharge from the eyes), antibiotics can help but are not strictly necessary (except in rare and very severe cases). Conjunctivitis will usually get better by itself after about a week. Clinical studies have shown however, that bacterial conjunctivitis will get better a few days quicker with antibiotics.
Is pink eye contagious?
YES!!! Very much so. When viral or bacterial, it is very easy to infect the other eye as well as other people at home, in the classroom or day care facility or at work. Appropriate hygiene is essential.
- No sharing of towels or face washers
- Change pillow cases regularly
- Everyone in the household should use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser regularly.
What if it's not conjunctivitis?
Most common forms of pink eye resolve spontaneously within a week or so. If you have persistently red eyes, even after this time, chances are there's something else going on. The best course of action is to see a therapeutic optometrist who can examine you eyes properly, diagnose the problem and either treat it or refer you to an ophthalmologist if it is a more serious condition.