Irritated, itchy, eyes: Could it be pink eye?

November 5, 2021

Understanding the differences between bacterial and viral pink eye

Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is a common condition that causes reddening and inflammation of the conjunctiva—the clear tissue that covers the white part of the eye and the interior of the eyelids.

Other symptoms of conjunctivitis include burning and/or itching of the eye(s), discharge, crusting of the eyelids, and general discomfort in the eye area.

Of the 3 – 6 million cases of pink eye that are reported annually, the majority are either viral or bacterial in nature. Determining the type of pink eye you or your family member contracted will dictate the proper course of treatment.

Viral Pink Eye

Viral conjunctivitis is highly contagious and is usually spread through hand-to-eye contact,” says Dr. David Gude, Chief Operations Officer at Texas MedClinic. “Viral pink eye is common in both adults and children, and often accompanies an illness like a cold, flu, or respiratory infection.”

Symptoms of viral pink eye typically include inflamed, burning eyes and a watery discharge. The infection may start in one eye but can easily spread to the other.

As is the case with most viral infections, antibiotics are not used in treatment. The virus is usually defeated by the body’s immune system within 1 week.

Bacterial Pink Eye

Bacterial pink eye often causes more redness in the eye than viral pink eye and is often accompanied with pain and/or tenderness and a thick, yellow discharge (pus). It usually spreads through hand-to-eye contact but can also be transmitted through large respiratory droplets.

Unlike viral pink eye, bacterial pink eye responds to antibiotic treatment and your doctor may prescribe antibiotic eye drops or ointment though it, too, will clear up on its own, typically within 5 – 10 days.

Ease the Discomfort of Pink Eye at Home

There are steps you can take to reduce the symptoms of both viral and bacterial pink eye and make yourself more comfortable:

  • Place a cool, wet washcloth over eyes to provide relief and loosen any crusty discharge that may have accumulated around the eye area.
  • Over-the-counter lubricating eyedrops may be helpful in reducing redness, itching, and/or dryness.
  • An over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), like Ibuprofen, may be used to relieve pain and reduce inflammation.

Avoid the Spread

There are precautions you can take to avoid spreading pink eye to your other eye or to others:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently with soap and water, especially before and after you eat, use the bathroom, touch your face, or cover a sneeze or cough.
  • ALWAYS wash your hands after touching/treating your eyes to avoid spreading the infection.
  • Change and wash daily any material that comes in contact with your eyes like pillowcases, towels, and sheets.
  • Avoid using makeup while you are infected and do not share makeup with others. Throw away and replace cosmetics used around the eye like mascara and eye liner.

Both bacterial and viral pink eye should clear up within 5-10 days. If it does not or symptoms worsen or you begin to experience pain in one or both eyes, a sensitivity to light or blurry vision, make an appointment with your doctor or go to an urgent care center to be evaluated.

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