What is pink eye?

crutchfieldsquareThe medical term for pink eye is conjunctivitis. Pink eye occurs when there is inflammation of the conjunctival part of the eye — the lining of the eyelid and white covering of the eye. The blood vessels become dilated with inflammation, and the increased blood causes the eye to appear red/pink.


Causes of pink eye


Pink eye has multiple causes including:

  • Bacterial infection
  • Viral infection
  • Allergic reaction
  • Environmental irritation (smoke, chemicals, dryness)
  • Mechanical trauma, foreign body

The most common causes of pink eye are viral and bacterial. These forms are usually associated with having a cold, upper respiratory infection, or other illness. Pink eye associated with bacteria and viruses is extremely contagious.


Symptoms of pink eye

  • Deep pinkness or redness in the eyes
  • Eyes may be “stuck together” from dried discharge that occurs overnight (very common)
  • Thick yellow discharge from the eye during the day
  • Sandy or gritty feeling in the eye
  • Itchiness of the eye
  • Swelling of the eyelid
  • Tenderness of the eye
  • Light sensitivity of the eye
  • Watering of the eye


Treatment of pink eye

If the cause is viral, there is no effective treatment except supportive measures like soothing eye over-the-counter moisturizing drops. A pharmacist or doctor will recommend the drops that are best and when it is best to return to work or school with viral pink eye. Viral pink eye will usually heal in 7-14 days on its own.

If the cause is bacterial, an antibacterial eye-drop or ointment may be prescribed by the doctor, along with supportive measures. Bacterial pink eye usually has a significant amount of thick yellow-white-gray drainage, more so than viral pink eye. The infection should resolve in approximately 2-5 days with treatment, and the person may return to school or work 24 hours after initiating treatment.

If the cause is from allergy, the doctor may prescribe an anti-inflammatory eye medicine. In very rare cases, herpetic infections of the eyes need special attention, so, as mentioned below, be sure to discuss a treatment plan with your doctor.

Warm or cool compresses may soothe and make the eyes feel better. Avoid contact lens use during the course. Use meticulous hygiene: Do not touch or rub eyes, use a clean washcloth, throw away all eye cosmetics and start over. Wash hands often and do not share washcloths or towels with anyone.

Remember, if you or a family member develops pink eye, be sure to contact your doctor to develop a complete plan for treatment. Pink eye is usually harmless and self-limited, but in rare cases, additional evaluation and help may be needed from your doctor.


Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the U.S. by Black Enterprise magazine and one of the top 21 African American physicians in the U.S. by the Atlanta Post. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians, MABP.org.