Picking Apart Pink Eye

Identifying, Treating, And Preventing

by Mackenzie Dziedzic, OD // January - February - March 2021

Winter has arrived, which means it is peak season for the spread of viruses and bacteria. Chances are that due to the pandemic, you are already being extra cautious and taking preventive measures such as hand washing, social distancing, and mask wearing to reduce your risk of infection, and that of those around you.

Conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye, is a condition diagnosed in children and adults and is seen most frequently during colder months. Spending more time indoors in enclosed spaces increases our chances of encountering a virus or bacteria that may cause pink eye. Many times, people head to the pharmacy to pick up eye drops when they start to feel eye irritation, but find themselves overwhelmed with so many drops from which to choose. There are many different types of eye drops to treat a variety of ocular conditions, and choosing the wrong drop may not properly treat the condition – or even make symptoms worse. Unfortunately, there is no eye drop that cures all different types of pink eye, as each is treated differently.


Viral conjunctivitis is the most common type of pink eye and is often very contagious. Like many viruses, there is usually an incubation time when one does not know he or she is contagious and can spread the virus. Symptoms may include redness, burning, watering, and light sensitivity. The virus commonly starts in one eye and eventually spreads to the other. Unfortunately, viral conjunctivitis cannot be treated with medication as the virus has to run its course, which usually takes several weeks to completely resolve. Cold compresses and artificial lubricating drops, and for more serious cases, an anti-inflammatory eye drop may be prescribed to help with comfort and symptoms; however, they do not help speed up recovery.

Could your pink eye be coronavirus? According to recent studies regarding COVID-19, a symptom of coronavirus could be viral conjunctivitis. During these unprecedented times, many of us are hyper concerned that we have contracted coronavirus whenever an unusual symptom appears. However, rest assured that it is estimated that only 1-3% of patients with coronavirus have pink eye.


Bacterial conjunctivitis can also be contagious, similar to a viral infection. But with bacterial infections, the eye typically produces a thick yellow discharge. Other symptoms include redness, irritation, decreased vision, light sensitivity, and crusting on the eyelids when waking up in the morning. Topical antibiotics are usually prescribed to treat bacterial pink eye. Patients usually see improvement within 24-48 hours, but should use antibiotic drops for the entire length of time as directed by their doctor. Both bacterial and viral conjunctivitis can occur along with other signs and symptoms, such as an upper respiratory infection or sore throat.


Allergic conjunctivitis can also present as red, watery, and irritated eyes; however, it is not contagious. Usually it is triggered by an irritant such as pollen, dust mites, animal dander, or as the seasons change. One of the most prominent symptoms is itching and puffy eyelids. Allergic conjunctivitis is diagnosed by viewing the white area of the eye and looking for bumps inside the eyelids. For mild cases of allergic conjunctivitis, limit exposure to the allergen by closing windows, using an air purifier, and keeping your home dust-free. Cool compresses can help reduce inflammation and reduce the urge to itch. In more moderate to severe cases, your doctor may prescribe an antihistamine and/or an anti-inflammatory eye drop.

Giant Papillary Conjunctivitis (GPC) is another noncontagious form, most commonly seen in contact lens wearers. GPC is usually caused by an allergy to the contact lens material or chemicals in contact lens solution. Symptoms may include pain, itching, mucus discharge, and droopy eyelids. Your doctor will be able to diagnose GPC by evaluating the inside of the upper and lower lids for bumps called papillae. Discontinuing contact lenses for several weeks is helpful in order to let the eye heal. Your doctor may also recommend switching to a daily disposable contact lens to avoid using lens solution. All contact lenses are made of different materials and identifying an allergy to a particular brand or solution early is important to prevent any future damage from occurring to the eye.

Many people with irritated eyes think that they have an infectious form of pink eye and that antibiotics will take care of it. However, it is not common for adults to have recurrent bacterial or viral pink eye. If your eyes often flare up, it would be worthwhile to undergo a more extensive evaluation to determine if a cause such as dry eye, allergies, or chronic inflammation is the culprit.

What type do I have?

Diagnosing the correct type of conjunctivitis is important in order to determine the best treatment approach. Your eye doctor will assess your symptoms, check your vision, evaluate the front surface of the eye with high magnification, and may perform supplemental testing such as culturing or taking smears of the tissue if the condition persists and does not respond to treatment.

A few hygiene tips your doctor may recommend to help prevent spread are:
– Wash hands with warm water and soap;
– Wash towels, linens, and pillowcases daily until the eye infection has gone away;
– Keep the eyes and areas around the eyes clean by discarding any tissues that have touched the eye;
– Limit makeup, especially around the eyes, and never share cosmetics;
– Throw away disposable contact lenses and wear glasses until pink eye has resolved;
– Avoid touching and rubbing the eye.

When to see your doctor

It is always a good idea to seek care if your eyes are painful, sensitive to light, have changes in vision, symptoms gets worse, or if you have a weakened immune system and are more prone to getting infections. Now more than ever, we are conscious of our hygiene and aware of how quickly viruses can spread. Focusing on immune health by eating healthy, getting plenty of sleep, and exercising are just a few ways of boosting the immune system to help fight any germs this winter season.

Mackenzie Dziedzic, OD

With McPherson Family Eye Care.