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Red, Itchy, Watery Eyes? Sounds Like Pink Eye

Let’s forego the medical niceties: pink eye is a sticky mess in your eyes – and it can hurt, too. If you have kids, you probably know it all too well because it spreads like the common cold. It is, after all, the most common eye infection in the country.

The proper name for this improper condition is "conjunctivitis" since it is an infection of the part of the eye called the conjunctiva. That’s the clear membrane that coats under your eyelids and the whites of your eyes. Conjunctivitis can hit one or both eyes, and brings with it the telltale symptoms ranging from redness and itching to downright pain. And, with the bacterial kind, you get that stuff that seems to glue your eyes shut come morning. As with most maladies, bacteria, viruses or allergies are the cause. The trouble is how contagious pink eye is. If it hits one person in the family, it’s likely to make its rounds to all family members.

Here’s a rundown of the key symptoms and differences of the various forms.

Bacterial. It’s the most common type and jumps from one person to another in a snap. The symptoms? Redness and itching and the sticky eyes that form at night, crusting over and keeping your eyelids stuck together by morning. The good news is antibiotics can treat bacterial pink eye. If your case is bacterial, visit your eye doctor so she can prescribe antibiotic eye drops.

Viral. Any number of viruses can cause it, attacking the eyes' surfaces and inner eyelids. Redness and itching are typical symptoms, as is the watery, clear discharge from the eye. Like the bacterial type, it’s contagious. Don’t bother with antibiotics. As with all viruses, they’re useless against viral conjunctivitis. But your eye doctor can prescribe eye drops that can lessen the symptoms and help you feel less miserable.

Allergic. Just name an eye irritant and it can cause allergic conjunctivitis. Anything from dust and pollen, to chemicals like cleaners, perfumes and industrial pollutants, can irritate the delicate conjunctiva. In this form, eyes usually get red and swollen while watering and itching can be severe.

Pink eye is more a nuisance than a danger, and isn’t in the habit of robbing eyesight. But, any of these symptom combinations should prompt you to call your eye doctor for treatment – even when the culprit is a virus. “The most important thing is to get early treatment to limit the spread of the infection, especially among children,” says Denis Humphreys, OD, VSP doctor in Sparks, Nevada.

Pounce on Pink Eye

Dr. Humphreys shares some tips to limiting the spread of bacterial and viral conjunctivitis:

  • It’ll be hard, but do your best not to touch or rub your eyes.
  • Keep your hands clean with regular washing and hand sanitizer.
  • Keep your personal items to yourself. Don’t share washcloths, towels or pillowcases. Wash everything after each use.
  • Don’t share eye drops.
  • Eye makeup can harbor the infecting bugs, so throw out any mascara, eyeliner or eye shadow you’ve used since getting the infection.
  • If you wear contact lenses, check with your eye doctor about not wearing them during treatment and/or replacing your lenses.

Be proactive if you have pink eye. See your eye doctor immediately for early treatment.