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By: John Frederick, MD

“Pink-eye” is the lay term commonly used to refer to the abrupt development of discharge and inflammation of an eye. There are many reasons why one or both eyes become red, sensitive and develop a discharge. Probably the most common cause of such an event is a bacterial or viral infection of the moist tissue which covers and protects the eye. The technical term for this tissue is conjunctiva, and its inflammation is referred to by eye doctors as conjunctivitis.

The conjunctiva on the eye’s surface directly connects through tear drainage pathways with the moist tissues lining the nose and throat. Just as the nasal and throat passages may be inflamed by viral and bacterial infections, so too may the eye. Most of these infections resolve in 1-2 weeks in the same way that a cold might. Similarly, just as people with coughs and runny noses are contagious to others, people with conjunctivitis may spread the illness. This is a frequent concern in school and the workplace, but is usually not cause for isolation of the affected person. Exceptions to this policy include small children who are apt to frequently rub their eyes and handle things that others will touch, food handlers, and health care personnel. The important thing to remember is that as long as the eye is uncomfortable and has a discharge, the infectious agent is likely to be in the tears, and may be left on objects handled after fingers have been contaminated. Hand washing after touching around an eye with conjunctivitis dramatically reduces the chance for spread of the disease. Separation of wash cloths and towels from others decreases the potential of spread to family members. Often the cause for the infection is viral and antibiotics may be of no benefit, however, some cases respond favorably to a brief course of eye drops.

A compress applied to your closed eyelids can relieve some of the discomfort of pink eye. To make a compress, soak in water then wring out a clean, lint-free cloth. If you have conjunctivitis in one eye only, don’t use the same cloth on both eyes so you won’t spread the infection from one eye to the other. Over-the-counter lubricating eyedrops (artificial tears) may also provide relief from pink eye symptoms.

Some guidelines regarding the necessity of medical consultation for “pink-eye” may be useful. It should be recognized that many potentially serious eye diseases may begin with the development of a red, watery eye. In general, the common conjunctivitis will not cause a significant change in vision (other than that which clears with blinking and may be blamed on excessive tearing), nor much sensitivity to bright lights, or throbbing pain. Therefore, an appointment with your eye care provider should be sought in the situation of pink-eye associated with decreased vision, pain other than a sandy sensation, sensitivity to light, a yellow, thick discharge, or persistence of symptoms beyond ten days. Young children should always be seen by an ophthalmologist if a persistent red eye develops.

BIO: Dr. Frederick, with Eye Surgeons Associates, is board-certified with a fellowship in Pediatric Ophthalmology. He is a member of the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus. Dr. Frederick practices at our offices in Bettendorf, Iowa and Rock Island, Illinois. For more information, please see our website:

The material contained in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider.

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