Pink eye: How to recognize it and when to see a doctor

pink eye

For anyone with kids, pink eye is one of those conditions that might be easily recognizable. The signs are obvious, after all: a red, puffy eye that has a nasty discharge. For kids, it’s almost a rite of passage. Who doesn’t remember having pink eye when they were a kid? 

We asked Chinwe Egbo, MD, a Banner Health pediatric hospitalist, to explain just what pink eye is. She says that pink eye, or conjunctivitis as it is also known, is an inflammation of the outer covering of the eye. And, while many people would consider it a childhood condition, all age groups can get it.

Dr. Egbo says there are three different causes for pink eye: bacterial or viral infections or allergies. 

Pink eye symptoms

Regardless of the type of pink eye you get—bacterial, viral or allergic—the symptoms are going to be similar. They include: 

  • Eye redness
  • Excessive watering
  • A thick discharge from the eye
  • Itching in the affected eye
  • Eye pain
  • Burning sensation in the eye

“If it is not getting better and is associated with other symptoms like pain and fevers, medical attention is needed,” Dr. Egbo said.

If you notice more redness or you experience a loss of vision, this could be a sign the bacterial infection is worsening, or you may have glaucoma. Be sure to see a doctor right away.

Pink eye treatment

Both the viral and the bacterial forms of pink eye are highly contagious. Fortunately, pink eye caused by allergies is not. While allergic pink eye can go away in roughly 24 hours, both bacterial and viral take about a week.

Treatment depends greatly on what type of pink eye you have, according to Dr. Egbo. Viral pink eye, for example will get better on its own, but bacterial pink eye will need to be treated with topical antibiotics. For pink eye you get from allergies, a doctor will recommend you avoid the allergen that causes it and may recommend eye drops or allergy pills.

Pro tip: Have an eye crusted shut? Wet a washcloth with warm water and gently wipe the affected eye until you can open it normally. Be sure not to let the used washcloth touch the other eye and launder the washcloth in hot water when you’re done with it.

How to avoid pink eye

So, knowing all of this about pink eye, you’ll probably want to know what—if anything—you can do to avoid it. The good news is avoiding it just takes a bit of diligence on your part.

Handwashing is the best way to avoid it,” Dr. Egbo said.

Remember, proper handwashing helps prevent a lot of diseases. Take the time to do it right.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer the following guidelines for washing:

  • Get your hands wet using clean, running water—warm or cold 
  • Apply soap
  • Build up a good lather on your hands, rub them together with the soap and make sure you get the backs of hands, between your fingers and under your nails
  • Make sure to scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds
  • Rinse your hands under clean, running water
  • Dry your hands with a clean towel or air dry them

Also, if you think you or someone you know has pink eye, make sure to keep your hands away. If you do touch it, wash your hands thoroughly to help keep it from spreading. 

Think you might have pink eye and want to get it checked out? A Banner Urgent Care clinic can help. Find one near you, find wait times and reserve a spot in line by visiting: urgentcare.bannerhealth.com.

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