Pink Eye Blues

What happens if the whites of your eyes aren�t quite so white one day � in fact, they�re the colour of a ruby red grapefruit? It may mean you�ve got a version of what is commonly called �pink eye.� Here�s how to get the red out.

Pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, is an infection of the conjunctiva, the thin membrane that coats the whites of your eyes. Although it�s called �pink eye,� your eyes will actually have a reddish hue, and your eyelids may be swollen.

Pink eye is usually a mild problem that goes away on its own. It does not cause symptoms such as loss of vision, light sensitivity, or pain. If you experience these symptoms, your problem is likely a more serious type of infection. See the Ask the Expert article in this issue to find out how to deal with more severe eye problems, including eye emergencies.

There are really three kinds of pink eye, but you can deal readily with all of them. Here�s how.

Bacterial Pink Eye

If your eyes are crusted and stuck together in the morning, you probably have bacterial pink eye, says ophthalmologist Dr. Blair Fearon, who sees many cases of conjunctivitis in his private practice in Toronto, ON. According to Fearon, another hallmark of bacterial pink eye is that it produces lots of yellow-green secretions.

Bacterial pink eye is often caused by improper cleaning of contact lenses. You can also get it by touching or shaking hands with someone else who has it and then rubbing your eyes. You can even catch this form of pink eye from bacteria on your own skin or in your nose.

If you think you have bacterial pink eye, Fearon advises you to see your eye doctor right away to get treated with antibiotic eye drops. It is important to complete the full course of the medication in order to wipe out the infection completely. If bacterial pink eye is not stopped early, it can cause an ulcer in the eye (see Common Eye Infections for more information on corneal ulcers).

Viral Pink Eye

If you wake up with a cold along with your red eyes, then you probably have the viral form of pink eye. Another clue is the swollen and tender gland that may appear just in front of your earlobe. Unlike bacterial pink eye, the viral form brings only a small amount of secretion from the eyes, and it tends to be a grey or yellowish discharge (which is slimy, sticky and stringy) rather than a yellowish-green liquid.

Viral pink eye is extremely contagious. You should avoid direct contact with family members, and should not share items such as towels or facecloths.

The good news about viral pink eye is it usually goes away on its own. According to Fearon, it is safe to wait a few days to see if the infection will clear. You can treat yourself by removing the eye secretions with a damp cloth. If the infection doesn�t go away in two to three days, or if you develop more of a yellowish-green discharge, you should see your doctor.

Allergic Pink Eye

If your eyes are horribly itchy, you most likely have the allergic form of pink eye. You may also have other allergy symptoms, such as a runny nose or hives. You may have a small amount of secretions from the eyes, but these tend to be clear and watery.

Allergic pink eye happens when your eye is irritated by something in your environment, such as pollen or a new cosmetic.

Although it�s uncomfortable, allergic pink eye is easy to treat. Try to shower before bedtime to reduce the irritation in your eyes. If it doesn�t go away on its own after a couple of days, you should see your doctor. He or she may prescribe anti-allergy medication or eye drops (or both), which can relieve even the most severe cases of allergic pink eye.

The End of Red

So the next time you see red, tell yourself not to panic. Unlike more serious eye problems, pink eye has no lasting effects and goes away quickly. Within a few days your problem will disappear and you will have a clear-eyed view of the world again.