March 6, 2019

Signs and symptoms of pink eye

Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is one of those illness that many parents become familiar with during the preschool years.

The telltale signs can be clear — itchy eyes that are reddish/pinkish in color and maybe even covered with a crust when the child wakes up. What might not be as clear is what, exactly, is pink eye.

There is a thin, clear covering on part of the eye and inside the eyelid called the conjunctiva. This protects the eye and helps keep it moist. When that conjunctiva becomes inflamed, or swollen, the white part of the eye can appear red. There are usually four causes for the inflammation:

  • Bacteria

  • Viruses

  • Allergens

  • Irritants

Even though there are different causes, the symptoms of pink eye are similar:

  • Redness and/or swelling of the eye and inside the eyelid

  • Itchy or irritated eyes

  • Crusting along the eyelids or lashes, especially after waking

  • Discharge from the eye that is yellow, white or green

  • Teary eyes

  • For contact lens wearers, contacts may feel uncomfortable or not stay in

Pink eye isn't just a childhood disease — adults can get it, too, as many parents may know from personal experience.

Viral and bacterial pink eye are the contagious types and spread easily between children or even between children and adults, just like the common cold. Usually, though, the symptoms are mild and go away on their own within five to seven days. If the symptoms get worse instead of better, or if there is eye pain, blurred vision or a sensitivity to light, or if there are any concerns, then it's time to talk with the doctor. Antibiotics may be prescribed for bacterial pink eye if it's not getting better on its own, but it's important to remember that antibiotics won't help when the cause is viral.

Irritants, like chlorine from the swimming pool, or allergens like a new pet in the house may trigger pink eye as well. In those cases, removing the irritant or allergen can help clear things up.

Preventing the spread

Good hygiene can help control the spread of pink eye, including:

  • Wash hands frequently

  • Use a clean towel and washcloth

  • Change pillowcases frequently

  • Don't share towels, washcloths, eye cosmetics or personal eye care items

  • Don't rub or touch eyes (this can be challenging with infants and toddler)

  • Wipe down surfaces and wash objects that are touched frequently by hands or even faces, such as doorknobs, tables, cell phones/telephones, pillows, cuddle blankets and toys

Care Anywhere

UW Health offers video visits so you don't have the leave home for care. If you would like to speak with a provider about pink eye, download the Care Anywhere app and have a face-to-face appointment at your convenience.